Sir Philip Sidney

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Kenneth Muir (essay date 1960)

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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 Arcadia as 'a monument of dullness'; Mr. F. L. Lucas called it 'a rigmarole of affected coxcombry and china shepherdesses'; Virginia Woolf described her reactions as 'half dreaming, half yawning'; and dullness is the one fault which the general reader neither can nor should forgive. Yet for three generations the book was read by everyone interested in literature, and there were thirteen editions between 1590 and 1674. Its popularity was partly due, like that of Rupert Brooke's poetry, to the legend attaching to the author; but it was perused by dramatists in search of plots—with Shakespeare at their head—by those who loved romances and by those who liked their moral lessons presented in a delightful form, by Charles I and by John Milton who spoke of it as a 'vain, amatorious poem' while conceding its worth and wit.

If, therefore, the modern reader finds it tedious, it may be because he comes to it with the wrong expectations. The development of the novel during the last two hundred and fifty years has conditioned our views of what prose fiction should be: we look for a plot embodying a theme, for subtle characterisation, for criticism of society, and usually for realism. But Sidney was not attempting to write a novel; his book is set in an imaginary past; his characters are much less vital than those of the best Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists; and his story is wildly improbable. We are bound to be disappointed if we ask of his masterpiece what it makes no attempt to provide.

Arcadia has been published in three versions. The short version, not published until 1926, was written first. Sidney described it in the dedication as 'this idle work of mine, telling his sister, the Countess, that it was not intended for publication:

being but a trifle, and that triflingly handled. Your dear self can best witness the manner, being done in loose sheets of paper, most of it in your presence, the rest, by sheets, sent unto you, as fast as they were done.

This version (the Old Arcadia, as it is called) is in five books or acts. In his last years Sidney began expanding and rewriting the book, and he had got half way through the third book, without making any use of the original third book, when he died or when he departed to take up his post as Governor of Flushing. The first two books in the revised form are twice as long as in the old Arcadia. This second version, divided into chapters probably by Fulke Greville, was published in 1590. Three years later, the Countess of Pembroke published the third version which consists of the 1590 version, without Greville's aids to the reader, but with the addition of the unexpanded concluding books. Some of the alterations in these books were apparently made by Sidney himself, or in accordance with his intentions by his sister; for others...

(This entire section contains 4737 words.)

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she may have been wholly responsible. Sidney had expressed a wish that the manuscript should be destroyed, partly no doubt because the revision was incomplete.

The old Arcadia is a straightforward romance, with the events in approximately chronological order.1 In the new Arcadia Sidney remodelled the book under the influence of the Æthiopian History of Heliodorus and the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor. He deliberately upset the chronological sequence of events, interspersing the main plot with others. We know from The Defence of Poesie that Sidney regarded both Xenophon's Cyropaedia and Heliodorus' Æthiopian History as 'absolute heroical poems', notwithstanding the fact that they were written in prose; and he rewrote Arcadia to convert it into a poem, mingling the heroic and the pastoral as Montemayor had done. Even in the old Arcadia Sidney had followed Montemayor's example in interspersing verses in a predominantly prose narrative.

Some critics have argued that Sidney spoiled the original Arcadia by his attempt to improve it. They admit the extraordinary ingenuity of the revised version, the 'marvellous involution and complexity' (as Dr. S. L. Wolff calls it), a kind of jug-saw puzzle in which every piece is essential to the grand design of the whole; but they suggest that the book is made impossibly difficult by its complicated structure, that no one at a first reading can follow the various strands in the pattern, and that, as Hazlitt put it, it is 'one of the greatest monuments of the abuse of intellectual power on record'. It has even been maintained that the style of the first version, less highly wrought than that of the revision, is for that very reason without the excessive ornament and preciosity which makes Sidney's later prose so difficult to read, and so unhappy a model.

Elizabethan reading habits were different from ours, and there is no evidence that Sidney's contemporaries found Arcadia unnecessarily complicated. That all would not be clear at a first reading is surely irrelevant to an estimate of the book's success. It would be re-read and discussed, digested and savoured, and the very complications would be a source of added pleasure. The modern reader, if he wishes to appreciate the book, cannot skim through it as he would through a recent bestseller. He must be prepared to read it more as he would a narrative poem or Joyce's Ulysses. Nor, I think, can it be seriously maintained that the style of the old Arcadia is superior to that of the new. Although as early as 1588 Abraham Fraunce had used a manuscript of the old Arcadia to provide examples of figures of speech for his Arcadian Rhetorike, its style is rough and unpolished compared with that of the new Arcadia. Many passages, it is true, Sidney used again with only slight modifications; but others he polished and refined, and many of the finest passages in the revised version are completely new.

A typical comparison may be made of the passages in the two versions describing Pyrocles after he has been lectured by Musidorus for falling in love with Philoclea:

These words spoken vehemently and proceeding from so dearly an esteemed friend as Musidorus did so pierce poor Pyrocles that his blushing cheeks did witness with him he rather could not help, than did not know his fault. Yet, desirous by degrees to bring his friend to a gentler consideration of him, and beginning with two or three broken sighs, answered to this purpose.

Pyrocles' mind was all this while so fixed upon another devotion, that he no more attentively marked his friend's discourse than the child that hath leave to play marks the last part of his lesson; or the diligent pilot in a dangerous tempest doth attend the unskillful words of a passenger: yet the very sound having imprinted the general point of his speech in his heart, pierced without any mislike of so dearly an esteemed friend, and desirous by degrees to bring him to a gentler consideration of him, with a shamefast look (witnessing he rather could not help, than did not know his fault) answered him to this purpose.

The revised version is superior in several ways. Sidney has obviously improved the structure of the prose; he has added two useful psychological touches to the character of Pyrocles; and he has inserted two similes and a metaphor. These might be regarded as supererogatory in prose fiction, but they are desirable ornaments in an heroic poem which the new Arcadia was intended to be.

How much Sidney's style was admired by his contemporaries can be seen not merely from numerous references to it, but from the way it was imitated. Greene, for example, who had written in a euphuistic style in the 'eighties, adopted the Aracadian style for his two best romances, Menaphon and Pandosto. Sidney himself had complained of the artificiality and monotony of euphuism, and his own style employs a much wider range of rhetorical figures, and avoids the exaggerated use of antithesis and alliteration, as well as the absurd similes, which make Euphues so tedious. His own similes and metaphors, though frequently far-fetched, are never mechanical. He speaks, for example, of blood mingling with the sea in these terms: 'their blood had (as it were) filled the wrinkles of the sea's visage'. He describes a tree reflected in a stream: 'It seemed she looked into it and dressed her green locks by that running river.' He writes of 'beds of flowers, which being under the trees, the trees were to them a pavilion, and they to the trees a mosaical floor'. He speaks of a storm as winter's child, 'so extreme and foul a storm, that never any winter (I think) brought forth a fouler child'. Instead of saying that Queen Helen spoke, he says: 'But when her breath (aweary to be closed up in woe) broke the prison of her fair lips.'

A longer passage, describing Pamela at her embroidery, has been condemned for absurdity:

For the flowers she had wrought carried such life in them that the cunningest painter might have learned of her needle: which with so pretty a manner made his careers to and fro through the cloth, as if the needle itself would have been loth to have gone fromward such a mistress, but that it hoped to return thenceward very quickly again: the cloth looking with many eyes upon her, and lovingly embracing the wounds she gave it: the sheers also were at hand to behead the silk that was grown too short. And if at any time she put her mouth to bite it off, it seemed, that where she had been long in making of a rose with her hand, she would in an instant make roses with her lips….

The reader who does not enjoy this bravura piece is unlikely to appreciate Arcadia as a whole, for it is not only delightful in itself but it helps to create the total impression of one of the two heroines. Dr. G. K. Hunter has rightly observed that Sidney's similes are not, on the whole, concerned to make things more plain or even more vivid, but by comparing the less artificial to the more artificial to stress the importance, the complexity, the significance, of the world described. Each individual incident, every gesture, one might almost say, becomes universalised.

Hoskins, in his Directions for Speech and Style, written but not published in 1599, used Arcadia as his storehouse for figures of rhetoric; and, in commenting on the way Sidney 'shunned usual phrases', he explained that 'this of purpose did he write to keep his style from baseness'. Virginia Woolf even suggested that 'often the realism and vigour of the verse comes with a shock after the drowsy languor of the prose'. But although Sidney was careful to keep his style from baseness in the heroic parts of Arcadia, he did this from a sense of literary decorum, as can be seen from the straightforward and direct prose he uses in passages of comic relief. In the heroic parts he was aiming at what Minturno advocated, 'magnificent and sumptuous pomp of incidents and language'.

This sumptuous pomp is not mainly a matter of vocabulary, though Sidney is fond of hyphenated epithets, but of using all the resources of rhetoric. Two of the commonest figures in Arcadia are antonomasia and periphrasis. Philoclea, for example, is called 'the ornament of the Earth, the model of Heaven, the triumph of Nature, the light of Beauty, Queen of love'; and, instead of saying that the lambs bleated for their dams, Sidney tells us that 'the pretty lambs with bleating oratory craved the dam's comfort'. Hoskins gives several examples of this figure. Sidney calls a thresher 'one of Ceres' servants' and instead of 'his name was known to high and low' he writes absurdly: 'No prince could pretend height nor beggar lowness to bar him from the sounds thereof.'

Many of the rhetorical figures consist of the repetition of words in different ways, the playing with them, and the departure from their natural order. Sometimes Sidney will end a sentence with a word taken from the beginning:

The thoughts are but overflowings of the mind, and the tongue is but a servant of the thoughts.

In shame there is no comfort, but to be beyond all bounds of shame.

At other times the word is repeated in the middle of the sentence, and in the following example the figure is underlined by alliteration:

That sight increased their compassion, and their compassion called up their care.

Sometimes Sidney interrupts a sentence with a parenthesis, reinforcing the meaning, or correcting it (i.e. epanorthosis):

In Thessalia I say there was (well I may say there was) a Prince.

Sometimes he uses oxymoron, as in the phrase 'humane inhumanity'; and sometimes he plays with the meanings of words, as in the description of 'a ship, or rather the carcass of the ship, or rather some few bones of the carcass'.

These are only a few typical examples of the scores of different figures used by Sidney. The Arcadian style depends, not as euphuism does on comparatively few overworked figures, but on the intensive use of a wide variety of figures, so that there is no danger of the reader becoming tired of any particular one. It is a restless, brilliant, self-conscious prose, continually calling attention to itself as much as to the thing described, and, it must be admitted, becoming intolerably affected in the hands of imitators without Sidney's comprehensive intelligence and without his high purpose.2

There are two qualities of Sidney's prose which have been appreciated by those who have been unable to enjoy its more obviously Elizabethan characteristics—its descriptive power and its rhythms. There had been great works of prose before the Arcadia, but Sidney was the first English writer to construct long and finely-articulated sentences with a conscious but varied prose rhythm, the first, perhaps, to spend as much pains on the composition of prose as others spent on verse. On every page there are touches of beauty, visual and descriptive beauty and beauty of rhythm, often combined, as in the justly famous conclusion to a long sentence describing Arcadia:

Here a shepherd's boy piping, as though he should never be old: there a young shepherdess knitting, and withal singing, and it seemed that her voice comforted her hands to work, and her hands kept time to her voice's music.

Another example, put into the mouth of the villainous Cecropia, has the same combination of qualities:

Have you ever seen a pure rosewater kept in a crystal glass; how fine it looks, how sweet it smells, while that beautiful glass imprisons it? Break the prison, and let the water take his own course, doth it not embrace dust, and lose all his former sweetness and fairness? Truly so are we, if we have not the stay, rather than the restraint, of crystalline marriage.

Sidney's art, however, was a means to an end. We have seen how he maintained that the function of poetry was to teach delightfully. Although some critics have supposed that Sidney taught by means of allegory, it is clear that apart from a few allegorical touches, he avoided the method of his friend, Spenser. What he was seeking to do was to create an imaginary world in which human actions and passions could be displayed, freed from the accidentals of the real world. The golden world created by the poet was, moreover, more beautiful than the brazen world in which we live. Nature, he tells us:

never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as diverse poets have done, neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely: her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.

The poet's method is to teach indirectly by means of his story:

He cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion … and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you, with a tale which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney-corner; and pretending no more, doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue.

Like the ideal actor of whom Hamlet speaks, Sidney's purpose was 'to show virtue his own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure'.

In some ways the old Arcadia is more directly didactic than the new. Sidney cut out the narrator's moralising, often transferring it to one or other of the characters in the story. The debates, as Professor Myrick shows, 'have been subordinated to the action, and the aphorisms have been half concealed in dramatic narration'. The teaching is to be found mainly in the examples of human beings, good and bad, in their actions and words. As Hoskins points out, 'Men are described excellently in Arcadia … But he that will truly set down a man in a figured story must first learn truly to set down an humour, a passion, a virtue, a vice, and therein keeping decent proportion add but names and knit together the accidents and encounters'. Hoskins adds that 'the perfect expressing of all qualities is learned out of Aristotle's ten books of moral philosophy' and that 'the understanding of Aristotle's Rhetoric is the directest means of skill to describe, to move, to appease, or to prevent any motion whatsoever; whereunto whosoever can fit his speech shall be truly eloquent'. It is significant that Sidney had translated the first two books of Rhetoric, which are concerned with the tasks of persuasion, an analysis of human motives and emotions, and a list of the various lines of argument available to different kinds of speaker. Hoskins' views are supported by Greville who tells us that Sidney's

purpose was to limn out such exact pictures of every posture in the mind, that any man being forced, in the strains of this life, to pass through any straits or latitudes of good or ill fortune, might (as in a glass) see how to set a good countenance upon all the discountenances of adversity, and a stay upon the exorbitant smilings of chance.

Although it was natural for Hoskins, writing on rhetoric, and for Greville, who in his old age sought in Sidney's works for the qualities he aimed at in his own and who was belabouring in his account of Sidney the decadence of a later age, to stress the moral purpose of Arcadia, they undoubtedly understood Sidney's intentions: but it would be wrong to suppose that the characters in Arcadia are mere exempla, or that they are all plainly black or white. Cecropia has no redeeming characteristics, and Philanax and Pamela appear to be wholly admirable; but between these extremes there are many characters, weak and amiable, vain and brave, sinful but not vicious, who together provide a representative pageant of human nature. Basilius may be condemned for his foolishness, his credulity and his attempted adultery, Gynecia may be held up as a bad example of passion usurping the place of reason, Amphialus may be a deluded egotist, but no one could pretend that these characters are wholly evil. The characters are revealed in their actions and the reader is always guided in his response to what they do and say.

Even the heroes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, are not depicted as perfect; but it is interesting to notice that Sidney removed two flaws in their characters in the process of revision. In the old Arcadia, at the end of Book 3, the love of Pyrocles and Philoclea is consummated before matrimony. Sidney may well have felt, or have come to feel, that it was dangerous to depict Pyrocles succumbing to this temptation, especially as the author's comment is not disapproving:

He gives me occasion to leave him in so happy a plight, lest my pen might seem to grudge at the due bliss of these poor lovers, whose loyalty had but small respite of their fiery agonies.

Musidorus, with less excuse, is so overcome by the beauty of Pamela as she lies asleep that he determines to ravish her, when he is prevented by the timely arrival of some bandits. Musidorus is an unlikely ravisher, and Sidney may have felt that the incident would make Musidorus's final happiness undeserved. There is no reason to suppose that the Countess of Pembroke was responsible for altering these two passages; but, if she did, the alterations were probably in accordance with Sidney's known wishes.

Sidney's teaching in Arcadia covers the whole range of private and public morality, We see the operations of lust, pride, ambition, anger and egotism, no less than those of love, friendship, courtesy and valour. We see the evils of superstition, tyranny and anarchy, as well as the value of magnanimity, justice and good counsel. We see how rebellion is caused by bad government, how courtesy and injustice, love and egotism can be embodied in a single character. Sidney was providing, among other things, a lesson to his aristocratic readers on their duties to the state as well as on questions of private behaviour. He shows the dangers of a weak monarchy and of factious nobles; he shows the evils of 'policy'; and, on a different plane, he exemplifies the workings of divine providence.

Nor does he convey these lessons merely by the presentation of appropriate incidents and the depicting of different types of character: scattered through Arcadia there are orations, letters, and set speeches which further illustrate his points. Early in the first book, for example, we are given a letter written by Philanax to Basilius, urging him to follow wisdom and virtue, and to ignore the oracle. Pyrocles, disguised as Zelmane, makes a 'pacificatory oration' to the mutinous Arcadians. Pamela is given a prayer which Charles I borrowed for his private devotions. The evil Cecropia is given three powerful speeches, one tempting Philoclea to marriage (III. 5), one similarly addressed to Pamela (III. 10), and one addressed to her son, urging him to rape Philoclea (III. 17). It can be seen from the extract from the second of these quoted above, that Sidney was quite prepared to give the devil his due, as Milton was to give some of his best poetry to Comus and Satan. In the second speech Cecropia is endeavouring to combat Pamela's appeals to conscience by undermining her religion with Lucretian arguments:

Dear niece, or rather, dear daughter (if my affection and wish might prevail therein) how much doth it increase (trow you?) the earnest desire I have of this blessed match, to see these virtues of yours knit fast with such zeal of devotion, indeed the best bond, which the most politic wits have found, to hold man's wit in well doing? For, as children must first by fear be induced to know that, which after (when they do know) they are most glad of: so are these bugbears of opinions brought by great clerks into the world, to serve as shewels to keep them from those faults, whereto else the vanity of the world and weakness of senses might pull them. But in you (niece) whose excellency is such, as it need not to be held up by the staff of vulgar opinions, I would not you should love virtue servilely, for fear of I know not what, which you see not: but even for the good effects of virtue which you see. Fear, and indeed, foolish fear and fearful ignorance, was the first inventor of those conceits…. Be wise, and that wisdom shall be a God unto thee; be contented, and that is thy heaven: for else to think that those powers (if there be any such) above, are moved either by the eloquence of our prayers, or in a chafe by the folly of our actions, carries as much reason as if flies should think, that men take great care which of them hums sweetest, and which of them flies nimblest.

Such a speech displays not merely Sidney's usual eloquence but his capacity to put himself in the place of characters with whom he could have had little sympathy. It could be said of him, to adapt Keats's remark, that he had as much delight in depicting a Cecropia as a Pamela.

It is true, in a sense, as Virginia Woolf said, that 'in the Arcadia, as in some luminous globe, all the seeds of English fiction lie latent'. Although, as we have seen, Arcadia is essentially an heroic poem rather than a novel, we can find in it foreshadowings of later novels. It was not an accident that Richardson christened his first heroine Pamela, though Sidney's Pamela is closer in character to Clarissa. But we do Sidney an injustice if we treat him as a forerunner, an imperfect experimenter in a form of literature which was yet to be invented. Arcadia is, indeed, closer to Elizabethan drama than to any kind of novel, and closer still, in spite of his avoidance of allegory, to The Faerie Queene. Unfinished though it is, Arcadia is incomparably the greatest Elizabethan prose work, the greatest precisely because it was conceived as a poem. Peter Heylyn said it was:

a book which besides its excellent language, rare contrivances, and delectable stories, hath in it all the strains of Poesy, comprehendeth the universal art of speaking, and to them which can discern, and will observe, notable rules for demeanour both private and public.


1 For those who have not yet read the book the following summary of the old Arcadia may be helpful:—Basilius, terrified by an oracle, prophesying disgrace and disaster to his family, abdicates for the year to which the prophecy refers. The two heroes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, fall in love with Philoclea and Pamela, the two daughters of Basilius. Pyrocles disguises himself as a woman, and Musidorus as a shepherd. Both Basilius and Gynecia, his wife, fall in love with Pyrocles, Gynecia having penetrated his disguise; but he tricks them both so that they share a bed with each other instead of with him, thus fulfilling part of the prophecy. Pyrocles and Musidorus are accused of seducing the princesses and of conspiring with Gynecia to murder Basilius who, having taken a love-potion intended for Pyrocles, appears to be dead. The heroes are about to be executed when Basilius revives: they are thus enabled to marry the princesses.

In the new Arcadia many other plots are interwoven with that of the original book: e.g. the story of Argalus and Parthenia, the story of the King of Paphlagonia and his two sons (used by Shakespeare for the underplot of King Lear), and the intrigues of Cecropia to obtain the throne for her son, Amphialus, and her cruel treatment of Philoclea and Pamela.

Sidney was confusing in his choice of names. Daiphantus is the name assumed by Pyrocles as well as a name given to Zelmane, the daughter of Plexirtus, and Zelmane is also a name used by Pyrocles.

2 Shakespeare seems to have been influenced by Sidney's style in the prose of King Lear, I. ii (presumably because he had been reading Arcadia for the Gloucester scenes); but his most notable exercise in the Arcadian style, reading like a parody of it, and put into the mouth of an anonymous courtier, is in The Winter's Tale, V. ii. 'They seem'd almost, with staring on one another, to tear the cases of their eyes; there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard of a world ransom'd, or one destroy'd. A notable passion of wonder appeared in them; but the wisest beholder that knew no more but seeing could not say if th'importance were joy or sorrow—but in the extremity of the one it must needs be.'


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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."

F. J. Levy (essay date 1964)

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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 branch of politics.1 During this crucial period, few Englishmen wrote on the theory of history at all; and of those who did, the most profound was probably Sir Philip Sidney, who touched on history only secondarily in his Defense of Poesy, but who, we know, was strongly interested in history and who was a friend of at least one of the important historians of the day. Thus, even though we know that Sidney's Defense concerned itself with history only as a side issue, the views expressed in the essay were of importance, especially when they are held against a background of a great paucity of other material.

What was the older view? History and poetry together had been considered branches of rhetoric because of their persuasive powers, and it was agreed that each might entertain; but it was incomparably more important that they could teach morality and, because of this, both were frequently thought of as a branch of moral philosophy. Hubert Languet, in a letter to Sidney, had stressed the importance of history, "by which more than anything else men's judgements are shaped," but in his classification history followed in order of importance salvation and "that branch of moral philosophy which treats of justice and injustice."2 The moral lessons of history could and should be taught to every man, but most especially to princes and magistrates. It was the fact that Sidney was invariably considered one of the latter which explains Languet's concern that he master history; and Sidney himself seems to have felt the same. The idea of history as a teacher of morality was already very old in Sidney's time. John Lydgate had made some use of it, as had William Baldwin and the other authors of the Mirror for Magistrates and as, too, had Sackville and Norton in Gorboduc, a play which Sidney praised.3 The Mirror serves as a convenient illustration of the doctrine of "with howe greuous plages vices are punished," and the whole is addressed to the nobility of the realm and all others in office, "for here as in a loking glas, you shall see (if any vice be in you) howe the like hath bene punished in other heretofore, whereby admonished, I trust it will be a good occasion to move you to the soner amendment. This is the chiefest ende, whye it is set furth …"4

Not that there are not difficulties. The authors of the Mirror are never altogether sure whether to blame Fortune or the individual malefactor, though in the end Fortune does seem to get the palm. But, as George Cavendish made clear in another classic statement of the doctrine, Fortune is usually abetted by him whom she would whirl about. Nor is this all. Alas, virtue is often defeated and vice successful. The preface to the Mirror puts the issue very clearly:

And although you shall finde in it, that sum haue for their vertue been enuied and murdered, yet cease not you to be vertuous, but do your offices to the vttermost: punish sinne boldly, both in your selues and other, so shall God (whose lieutenauntes you are) eyther so mayntayne you, that no malice shall preuayle, or if it do, it shal be for your good, and to your eternall glory both here and in heaven, which I beseche God you may couet and attayne. Amen.5

Within the context of the Mirror, this is just permissible: although in contradiction to the statement that the punishment of vice would be demonstrated, it is compatible with the theory that a malevolent Fortune bears sway.

With their dual purpose of exposing the fickleness of Fortune and revealing the plagues which follow vice, the authors of the Mirror had now to attack the historical material which constituted their subject matter. No one could expect that they would engage in full-scale research; it was enough that the obvious chroniclers—Fabyan, Hall—should be consulted. What if these disagreed? Here trouble set in again. When the matter of Lord Grey's parentage came up, just such a disagreement occurred, and the authors of the prologue to the tale grew wroth. Such a disagreement was a great hindrance to truth, they said, and the fault lay with the nobility, who had been too neglectful to collect all their documents. It was they who should have written a full and true chronicle. But the Mirror itself was a didactic book, and since research was out of the question, they will follow Hall in matters which are doubtful. "And where we seme to swarve from hys reasons and causes of dyuers doynges, there we gather vpon coniecture such thinges as seeme most probable, or at the least most convenient for the furderaunce of our purpose."6 So much for historical accuracy.

Much may be excused a poem, however historical and didactic. Yet the attitude of the authors of the Mirror, both in terms of underlying purpose and of attitude toward accuracy, can easily be duplicated. Even Camden, surely the most conscientious of all the Tudor historians, omitted detailed description of some few events because elaboration would not be conducive to morality.7 And Samuel Daniel—the poet turned historian—tells us that "the Computation of Times is not of so great moment, figures are easily mistaken, the 10. of July, and the 6. of August, with a yeare over or under, makes not a man the wiser in the businesse then done, which is onely that he desires."8 History with an ulterior purpose of this sort led inevitably to bad history.

The best summary of the older Tudor attitude is extant in a work which was not English but French, and which was naturalized only immediately before Sidney set about writing his Defense. Bishop Amyot's preface to the readers of his Plutarch points out that history was to be commended because it combined profit and delight, and because it always taught moral lessons, and political, "for it is a certaine rule and instruction, which by examples past, teacheth us to judge of thinges present, and to foresee things to come: so as we may know what to like of, and what to follow, what to mislike, and what to eschew."9 No success is possible without the study of history, for it gives examples and precepts. Moreover history-writing itself is part of the mechanism by which good is rewarded and evil punished, because the evil are deterred by "the reproch of everlasting infamie," while the good are spurred on by the thought of "immortall praise and glorye."10 Granted that the study of history cannot alone make a wise magistrate or an able captain: nature, art and practice are all necessary, and history can only aid the second. But, in Amyot, the old difficulty recurs: the historian must not show hatred or favor, but he must be a man of "good judgement to discerne what is to be sayd, and what to be left unsayd, and what would do more harm to have it declared, than do good to have it reproved or condemned."11 It was the historian's task do serve the commonweal, and to act "as a register to set downe the judgements and definitive sentences of Gods Court."12 If history is thus useful, and delightful, to ordinary men, how much more is it for great princes and kings! And so Amyot goes on, quite naturally, to praise Plutarch.

All the old contradictions arise here. If, as Amyot says, God's judgments are inscrutable, what business has the historian to omit matters? If one is to learn from history's examples the differences between good actions and bad, successful actions and unsuccessful, what right has the historian to choose some events as more suitable than others? Worse yet, if everything is determined by Providence—for Amyot eschews Fortune—how can man profit at all? This is no place to discuss the intricacies of the problem of free will, but it is as well to point out that the issue itself was much involved in the Elizabethan discussions of the usefulness of history.

Sidney was perfectly aware of these obstacles in the path of the moralist-historian. Whether we can take everything in his Defense of Poesyau pied de la lettre is perhaps arguable, for he certainly overstated his case—just as Amyot had overstated his own case against the poet. But that is not to say that we can believe nothing of what Sidney says. A few of the points he scores off the historian are obvious enough: feigned orations, already condemned by Bodin, are in the realm of fiction as is the "passionate describing of passions" and fiction belongs to the poets.13 His chief attack on the historians, however, has to do with their claim to teach morality. In the realm of virtue, the poet should reign supreme, and to defend his title, Sidney attacked the pretences of the historian and the lawyer and the moral philosopher. The lawyer is easily disposed of; but the historian and the moral philosopher—figures of fun, both of them—attack each other so lustily that the poet must needs be called in as moderator, and in the end the judge awards himself the prize. For the original disputants are too successful in pointing out each other's weaknesses, and the poet realizes that while one has the precept and the other the example, neither has both together. The philosopher is too abstruse, and "happy is that man who may understand him," while the poet's wisdom is "food for the tenderest stomachs, the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher."14 On the other hand, the historian's particularities are, in themselves, meaningless. But, it may be argued, at least the historian is concerned with truth, not with abstractions or feigned tales. Insofar as the question is one of truth and falsehood, there is no argument; "but if the question be for your own use and learning, whether it be better to have it set down as it should be, or as it was," then surely the feigned Cyrus in Xenophon is "more doctrinable" than the true Cyrus in Justin.15

And whereas a man may say, though in universal consideration of doctrine the poet prevaileth, yet that the historian, in his saying such a thing was done, doth warrant a man more in that he shall follow, the answer is manifest: that if he stand upon that was—as if he should argue, because it rained yesterday, therefore it should rain today—then indeed it hath some advantage to a gross conceit. But if he know an example only informs a conjectured likelihood, and so go by reason, the poet doth so far exceed him, as he is to frame his example to that which is most reasonable, be it in warlike, politic, or private matters; where the historian in his bare was hath many times that which we call fortune to overrule the best wisdom. Many times he must tell events whereof he can yield no cause; and, if he do, it must be poetically.16

Here Sidney went too far. In his zeal, he attacked not only the historian's claim to make reasonable generalizations, which is fair enough, but also the claim that we can learn something from events, a theory which depends on the repetition of the events themselves, or at least on the innate sameness of human beings. The poet must claim something similar if he is to teach. Moreover, the remark concerning Fortune, while shrewd enough, was just as applicable to tragic poets who, instead, were praised for teaching "the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded."17

Sidney had still another demonstration of his theory that poetry taught morality more successfully than history, and on this occasion he turned history's best weapon against it. Everyone agreed that history was possessed of the realm of the true, poetry of that of the feigned. As we have seen, Sidney had disposed of the idea earlier to his own satisfaction by showing that history's "truth" was meaningless; now, he returned again to the distinction, with the purpose of demonstrating that poetry's invention was more useful than history's truth. For poetry, unlike history, can make virtue triumph always, can indeed make "Fortune her well-waiting handmaid."18 The historian can do no such thing, for "history, being captivated to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well doing, and an encouragement to unbridled wickedness."19 Thus, history's one great advantage is turned against it. Not that Sidney believed everything which can be found in history books. In his thorough fashion he had assaulted both the historians and their sources with a mixture of shrewd sense and mocking raillery. And so it was that the historian was removed from his ancient position as a moral arbiter.

If anything, Sidney was too thorough. His treatise provokes a smile quite as readily as it does a nod of agreement, and the rhetorical exaggeration is frequently carried to such an extreme that we know it to be a pose. There is, in short, the danger that we have been engaged in dissecting a soufflé with a dull axe. And so we have. Yet even this admission is insufficient to make one believe that Sidney was not occasionally serious, even when discussing that comic figure the historian. Two other points, however, also give one pause. It is a truism that much of the Defense is borrowed from the Italians; Sidney's ideas of history may be among the borrowings. What is worse, Sidney seems to contradict much of the argument of the Defense in a letter written to his brother not much more than a year before he wrote his treatise. Even if both these arguments be granted, it does not necessarily prove that the reasoning in the Defense is invalid, nor even that Sidney did not himself believe it. Still, it is worth our while to examine the two points.

Professor Weinberg, in his study of the sixteenth century Italian theorists, has told us that the connection of history and poetry to moral philosophy came late; much the same point is made by Professor Beatrice Reynolds in her analysis of a group of sixteenth century texts on the art of history.20 The implication is that the theory Sidney attacked was a relatively recent one. To an extent this is true. But it is clear that the connection of history and moral philosophy is a good deal older than that: one finds it, for instance, in some of the fifteenth century treatises on education, and it is implicit in much late medieval writing. In fact, the connection between rhetoric and history was a relatively recent one, having come about through the increased interest in Cicero and Quintilian. The great change that Professor Weinberg finds is, it seems to me, a return to an older idea; and in England, Ciceronianism had never penetrated vernacular history-writing at all. The most that may be said is that the connection was once again fashionable at the time that Sidney wrote, not that it was new.21 Once the connection between history (or poetry) and morality is granted, it is relatively easy to establish the superiority of poetry. The prime advantage of history—truth—becomes of little account, and the single-mindedness of poetry is its greatest asset. Indeed that single-mindedness was included in the very definitions: history is an account of the actions of many men, poetry that of a single action of one man. Naturally, the poet had an easier time inculcating virtue; and the fact that he had to regard truth as only secondary helped still further. History was diffuse, inarticulate; poetry went straight to the point.22 Obviously, both arts had a good deal in common: the connection to rhetoric was still valid (everyone assumed that history, because persuasive in some sense, should be well-written); both are narrative arts (epic poetry is meant here); both use historical data; and so on.

It was generally considered—at least by the theorists of poetics—that the two arts had a common purpose as well: "both seek to teach, to delight, to move, and to bring profit; history especially seeks utility."23 But another view of the utility of history was gradually evolving: history was to teach men how to behave, not necessarily in terms of morality, but in terms of politics. At this point, the disadvantages of the historian suddenly became advantages. An art which described the actions of many men was closer to reality than one which described a great action by one man. An art which showed that the virtuous are often punished, and that the wicked as often flourished, while not moral, was at least a description of the world as it is. For the embryo politician, history was a much more useful study than poetry. One mark of this new history was an interest in the causes of events, as much as in the events themselves. To a purely moral historian, causes, while interesting, were not of great importance; to a political historian, they were essential. Although the whole idea of political history was not new, it may be said to have become effectively established through the writings of Machiavelli and Guicciardini, and by the 1580's this view of the utility of history had become of considerable importance.

It is now possible to understand Sidney's famous letter to his brother more clearly. The recommendation of history there began with a definition: "a story, he is nothing but a narration of thinges done, with the beginings, cawses, and appendences therof," and to understand so much, an exact knowledge of chronology was essential.24 In more detailed and constructive histories, such as those of Herodotus and Thucydides, "yow have principally to note the examples of vertue or vice, with their good or evell successes, the establishments or ruines of greate Estates, with the cawses, the tyme and circumstances of the lawes they write of, the entrings, and endings of warrs, and therin the stratagems against the enimy … ; and thus much as a very Historiographer."25 Sidney was unable to resist pointing out that the historian borrowed much of his plumage from the poet. "The last poynt which tendes to teach profite is of a Discourser, which name I give to who soever speakes, non simpliciter de facto, sed de qualitatibus et circumstantiis facti …" and then Sidney went on to show how the historian at times partook of the nature of a divine, a natural philosopher, a lawyer and especially a moral philosopher.26 But Sidney ended with a method of learning the historian's analysis of "politick matters",27 and the repetition of that idea of history, throughout the relevant parts of the letter, shows clearly enough where his own interests lay.

There is nothing in the letter which contradicts the Defense. Since Sidney, in his treatise, had never gone to the extreme of suggesting that history is utterly useless as a moral teacher—individual episodes might be useful, even if the body of history were not—it is no surprise to find that point alluded to in the letter. He had not, to be sure, made out much of a case for the historian as a master of politics in the Defense, but then defending the historian was no part of his business there, and he had not altogether excluded the notion. The Defense emphasized the negative argument, the letter the positive, and the only sort of history for which those arguments hold is the political sort which we have been describing. That there is, nonetheless, exaggeration in the Defense is undeniable; but the amount of exaggeration is not such as to invalidate the suggestion that Sidney meant what he said.

It thus becomes clear that Sidney looked on history as being useful only insofar as it gave specific instruction to men of action. If history did teach morality at all, it did so accidentally, and poetry could do the job much more satisfactorily. But poetry could not teach a magistrate how to behave politically; poetry might inculcate in the magistrate the view that one action was morally right and another morally wrong, but it could not teach him to make a good political choice between a number of possible actions, all of which might be equivalent morally. That task belonged to history.

If this statement of Sidney's views on history is correct, we have in the Defense the best critical argument on the subject written in Tudor England. Only Sidney really understood the peculiar predicament into which authors such as Baldwin and AmyotCand a myriad of othersChad worked themselves. The analysis argues a knowledge of historical writing of some depth. Precisely what Sidney had read is open to question: of the major sixteenth century writers, only Thomas More (Richard III), Machiavelli (The Prince) and Jean Bodin come readily to mind. To be sure, Sidney mentioned the great Greek and Roman writers, and the chronographers Lanquet and Melanchthon, but the extent of his reading in them is doubtful. Nonetheless, Languet, so early as 1577, mentioned that Sidney had an inclination to history and had made great progress in it.28 Moreover, Sidney was acquainted with Camden and Hakluyt, and knew Daniel Rogers, the poet, diplomat and historian manqué, rather well. He was interested in George Buchanan's historical work, and was opposed to the foolishness of the "Brute" legend.29 Furthermore, his own writings show a grasp of the subject: the treatise on Ireland backed a Machiavellian maxim by a suggested use of the history of that country, a knowledge which Sidney surely had30; the argument against the Queen's marriage used historical examples to prove a generalization about alliances. Even the jesting at Humphrey Lhuyd's little book on early Britain got matters exactly right: it was Lhuyd's cavalier treatment of etymology which made the volume almost useless.31 Sidney's comments on history are not, then, merely the converse of his judgments on poetry.

The importance of all this in the history of historical writing lies in its timing. A mild sort of revolution was occurring in the art of history, a revolution occasioned by the evident failure of the older form of moral history to produce any great works. Moreover, a revolution was needed in poetics as well and, because the two subjects had been so long connected, the two revolutions were bound to interact. Sidney solved the problem of history by ejecting the subject from the realm of moral philosophy, and by leaving moral philosophy—as a practical subject—to the poets. Whether his resolution—or this part of his resolution—of the problem of poetry was that which finally produced the "Elizabethan" age, others can judge better than the present author. But his resolution of the historical problem was, surely, of importance. His fellow-scholar and friend, William Camden, the best historian of the time, when it came to explaining his motives for writing put the matter of circumstances—of reasons and causes—first; it is not that the moral purpose of history is altogether omitted, but that what had once occupied the first place was now relegated to a subordinate position, and it is this relegation which made possible Camden's work, and Hayward's, and Bacon's.


1 On this, F. S. FUSSNER, The Historical Revolution (London, 1962), and my "The Elizabethan Revolution in Historiography," History, 4 (Meridian Books, 1961), 27-52. There is also a great deal of information in E. M. W. TILLYARD, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944), and in the works of Lily B. CAMPBELL, especially Shakespeare's "Histories", Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, 1947).

2The Correspondence of Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, ed. W. A. Bradley (Boston, 1912), 30.

3 See Willard FARNHAM, The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (Oxford, 1956).

4The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (Cambridge, 1938), 62 (reproduction of title page of 1559), 65-6.

% Ibid., 67.

6Ibid., 267; the italics are mine.

7 William CAMDEN, The History of the … Princess Elizabeth [Annales] (London, 1675), 235.

8 Samuel DANIEL, The Collection of the History of England, rev. ed. (London, 1634), A4r.

9 PLUTARCH, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, trans. Sir Thomas North, ed. G. Wyndham (London: Tudor Translations, 1895), "Amiot to the Readers," I, 10.

10Ibid., 11.

11Ibid., 15.

12Ibid., 15.

13 Sir Philip SIDNEY, The Defense of Poesie, in Literary Criticism, Plato to Dryden, ed. A. H. Gilbert (Detroit, 1962), 409. I use this as the most convenient good edition, though Gilbert modernizes the spelling.

14Ibid., 420, 423.

15Ibid., 423.

16Ibid., 424.

17Ibid., 432.

18Ibid., 425.

19Ibid., 425-6.

20 Bernard WEINBERG, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1961), I, 30; Beatrice Reynolds, "Shifting Currents in Historical Criticsm", Journal of the History of Ideas, XIV, No. 4 (Oct. 1953), 477-8.

21 Perhaps it would be most accurate to say that the moral and rhetorical theories of history had coexisted ever since the time of the ancients, and that the issue at any given moment was which of the two was predominant.

22 Again, of course, the point is over-stated. Characters who are either all black or all white are difficult to believe in, and Sidney, when it came to writing his own epic, did sometimes modify the extremes. At least, he seems to have allowed the innocent to suffer: just the sort of thing that happened in history and should not in poetry. See J. F. Danby, Poets on Fortune's Hill (London, 1952), 52.

23 Weinberg I. 41, summarizing Dionigi Atanagi.

24The Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. A. Feuillerat, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1922-6), III, 130.

25Ibid., 130-1.

26Ibid., 131.

27Ibid., 132.

28The Correspondence of Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, loc. cit.

25 Sidney, Camden and Hakluyt were at Oxford together; the first two shared the historian, Thomas Cooper, as tutor. For Rogers' connection to Sidney, and the connection of both to George Buchanan, J. E. Phillips, "George Buchanan and the Sidney Circle," Huntington Library Quarterly, XII, No. 1 (Nov. 1948), 23-55, and J. A. van Dorsten, Poets, Patrons, and Professors (Leiden, 1962).

30 SIDNEY, Complete Works, III, 49-50; Sidney refers to the same maxim (attributed by him to Machiavelli) in the Correspondence of Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, 60.

31The Correspondence of Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, 38-40.

Principal Works

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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

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1965)

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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 places to give the show away, to tell us twice over how we should feel. Myrick comments: "In the original version, where Sidney so often disregards the principles of the Defence, he frequently drops his role of 'maker' and comments upon the story."1 But, as we have seen, the "message" of the Old Arcadia may not be quite so obvious, the reader's response not so clearly predictable, as has formerly been thought. It is logical, then, to seek in Sidney as narrator a figure more complex than the chatty, brotherly, facile moralizer he at first seems to be.

The narrator of the Old Arcadia is ostensibly Philip Sidney—no persona is involved. He tells the tale to his sister and her friends. If he were writing today he would probably eliminate all his parenthetical assertions and simply report, or seem to report, what happened. There would be no asides to his "Dear Ladies." The mask of "maker" would never slip from his face. Not having our advantages, he lets it slip so often it is difficult to tell when it is up and when down. He seems not to have taken a great deal of care to keep the two roles separate, not to have acknowledged, in fact, any fundamental separation at all. "Maker" and "Commentator" is a misleading dichotomy for the Old Arcadia. Instead, we might distinguish first a narrator who is essentially a reporter, who describes the scenes to his "Dear Ladies" as if he were watching a play. His principal function at times seems to be that of a man changing a play into a prose romance. Scenery, pose, gesture, expression, all are given through his "comment." In this way, his interruptions could be said to heighten the dramatic vividness, not to detract from it. This kind of comment Myrick would presumably construe as legitimately belonging to the "maker." But the narrator also annotates, both implicitly and explicitly, what he describes. He is omniscient, he has seen the play before. He has also written, produced, and directed it. He even plays a part in it. In none of these roles is he less of a "maker" than in any other, and the "product" results from the complex interaction of these roles upon one another, not from any single one.

To be more explicit: we have first the basic story of the princes' adventures in Arcadia, in which Love pursues its inevitable triumph. The narrator simply describes this. He is powerless to change it, though he clearly would like to at certain points. He sympathizes with the characters much as he would had they been created by somebody else. But he knows what is going to happen, and try as he does to put a good face on some of the dastardly deeds, he cannot change the fundamental facts. Even when he becomes bored with their speeches he cannot shorten them: at one point when Basilius is reopening his heart to Cleophila he remarks on Basilius' discourse, "with many other suche hony wordes, which my penn growes allmoste weary to sett downe" (168). This is simply to say that Sidney, once he has made his initial assumption, that his characters are violently in love, does not interfere with the events which he—as "maker" and "commentator" and "actor"—sees as inevitably following from this assumption. The consequences of passion are in no way softened. There is only one exception to this, the happy ending. (It is a vital exception, of course.) But by not otherwise softening the effects of passion, Sidney avoids the very thing to which James so objected in Trollope: the author's confession that he could make things turn out differently if he wanted to. The narrator's comments and regrets have precisely the opposite effect here; they emphasize the inevitability of the "Pilgrimmage of Passion" passing before us. Sidney at one point even says he is simply retelling what is contained in official records: "And doubt yow not, fayre Ladyes, there wanted no questioning how thinges had passed, but bycause I will have the thanckes my self, yt shall bee I yow shall heare yt of, And thus the Auncyent Recordes of Arcadia say, yt fell owte" (47). Too much ought not to be made of this mythical authority, for it is not seriously or repeatedly introduced, but it does indicate that Sidney intended to place himself in the role of an omniscient narrator reporting a story whose main events are unalterable. Occasionally he rearranges speeches uttered in haste or emotion. He gives in full the text of songs which only run rapidly through the mind of his characters: "But doo not thincke (Fayre Ladyes) his thoughtes had suche Leysure as to ronne over so longe a Ditty: The onely generall fancy of yt came into his mynde fixed uppon the sence of the sweet Subject [Philoclea]" (226). But he does not change any of the essentials of the story or radically alter the character of his personages.

The narrator also comments on the action being played out before him. Sometimes Sidney is a modest narrator: "In what Case pore Gynecia was, when shee knewe the voyce and felt the body of her husband? Fayre Ladyes, yt ys better to knowe by imaginacyon, then experyence?" (214). Occasionally he seems personal, almost autobiographical, as when Pyrocles and Philoclea are tucked in bed at the end of Book III: "Hee gives mee occasyon to leave hym in so happy a plighte, least my Penn mighte seeme to grudge, at the due Blisse of these pore Lovers, whose Loyalty had but smalle respite of theyre fyery Agonyes" (227). At other times, he seems to be the impersonal mouthpiece of conventional wisdom. The first sentence of Book IV, "The Everlasting Justice" etc., is one of innumerable examples. The Old Arcadia is larded with sententiae, many of them voiced by this speaker of conventional wisdom. They are part of the romance in a way that such speculations as the one quoted, about Gynecia's disappointment at finding her lover become her husband, are not. They supply a moral framework within which the action can be judged. Critics have, of course, objected to this. Aristotle's dictum that "the poet should speak as little as possible in his own person for it is not this that makes him an imitator."2 developed into the modern preference for "showing" over "telling," has caused the Old Arcadia to be ranked beneath the New because in the Old the second method allegedly predominates over the first. Muir writes, for example: "In some ways the old Arcadia is more directly didactic than the new. Sidney cut out the narrator's moralizing, often transferring it to one or other of the characters in the story."3 Yet the moral orientation which the narrator provides is essential to the reader's evaluation of the action. The narrator performs, in fact, the function Aristotle looked for from the chorus.4

Not all of the narrator's moralizings are the expected opinions. The beginning sentence of Book IV, though conventional, is still in its context surprising and strong; … it colors the whole of our reading of the book which follows. It is misleading to view these as pointless asides of a garrulous narrator. This difference between the narrative poses does not lend itself to absolute demonstration but will, I am confident, become obvious with a close reading. The important point to be made is that sometimes Sidney stands distanced from the narrator or, to put it another way, his comments upon the action are often so general or traditional as to be rather part of the narrative than personal asides. It is a mistake to make out a complete distinction between the "real" Sidney and "Sidney the narrator," for the distance between them frequently changes. But there are differences between the two nevertheless. Sidney's tongue is more fully in his cheek at some times than at others.

The first Pyrocles-Musidorus scene, for example, shows a narrator who describes its humor without betraying an understanding of it. He is careful to make the comedy clear for us but he does not acknowledge it openly or seem even to be aware of it. He goes on, much in the manner of one of Swift's narrators, being precise about details and oblivious to larger issues. When Pyrocles, in the midst of his passionate confession to his friend of his noble love for Philoclea, reveals his real motive in a moment of heat, the narrator reports it without emphasis along with the praises of heavenly love which have preceded it: "And thus gently, yow may, yf yt please yow, thincke of mee, neyther doubte yow, because I werre a womans apparrell, I will bee the more womannish, since I assure yow (for all my apparell) there ys no thing I desyer more, then fully to proove my self a man, in this enterpryse" (19-20). There can be little doubt that Sidney placed this here as a parenthetical ironic comment on the extravagant language Pyrocles uses to describe his love, but the narrator is specifically made blind to it. At other times, his perception of the comedy is partial, and deliberately understated. He is closer to the author but not coincident with him, as when Musidorus reverses his stand against Pyrocles' falling in love: "Pyrocles harte was not so oppressed with the twoo mighty passions of Love & unkyndenes, but, that yt yeelded to some myrthe at this Comaundement of Musidorus, that hee shoulde love Philoclea" (22). Another example leaves us in doubt as to how widely the narrator is willing to be caught smiling. In the midst of the suicide debate which follows the seduction, Pyrocles pretends to agree to Philoclea's demand that he stay alive in order to humor her: "Pyrocles who had that for a Lawe unto hym not to leave Philoclea in any thinge unsatisfyed, allthoughe hee still remayned in his former purpose, and knewe the tyme woulde growe shorte for yt" (275). When Dorus, questioned in Book I about his desires for employment, replies (so that he can remain close to Pamela) that his mind is "wholly sett up on pastorall affaires" (49) the ironic dismissal of the pastoral element is passed on by a tongue-in-cheek narrator without comment. Such a dismissal of what at least purports to be the central concern of the story—pastoral affairs—is likely to escape a modern reader but presupposes, one must think, a considerable meeting of minds between Sidney and his anticipated audience. Otherwise such persistent ironic shorthand simply would not succeed.

Sometimes Sidney comments wryly on his characters in asides which take the reader fully into his confidence. He describes Pyrocles' awakening after his night with Philoclea: "But, so yt was yt Pyrocles awaked, grudging in hym self, that sleepe (though very shorte) had robbed hym, of any parte of those his highest Contentmentes" (269). He is even more obvious in his reflections on his clowns, as when Dametas is hastening on to his buried treasure:

Many tymes hee cursed his horses want of Consideratyon that in so ymportunate a Matter woulde make no greater speede, many tymes hee wisshed hym self the back of an Asse to help to carry away his newe soughte Riches: An unfortunate wissher, for yf hee had aswell wisshed the hedd, yt had beene graunted hym, at lengthe, beeyng come to the Tree whiche hee hoped shoulde beare so golden Ackornes.


Sometimes the mockery is made more indirect by being put into the mouth of the character: Mopsa, for example, after she has been told about the wishing tree by Dorus, "Conjured hym by all her precyous Loves, that shee mighte have the first possession of the wisshing Tree, assuring hym, that for the enjoyng of her hee shoulde never neede to Clyme farr" (184).

The moral is sometimes explicitly drawn, sometimes left entirely up to the reader. In the fifth book, for example, Philanax goes to meet Euarchus, who has paused just inside the boundary to make clear his peaceful intent. Philanax finds the great King "taking his Rest under a Tree, with no more affected pompes, then as a Man that knewe (howe so ever hee was exalted) the beginning & ende of his Body was earthe" (331). The moral is unmistakable: privilege does not extend beyond the grave, better not abuse it on this side. Then on the next page we read:

These Rightly wyse and temperate Consideracyons mooved Euarchus, to take his Laboursome Journey to see whether by his authority hee might drawe Basilius from this burying him self alyve, and to returne ageane to employ his oulde yeares in doyng good, the onely happy action of mans lyfe: Neyther was hee withoute a Consideracyon in hym self to provyde the Mariage of Basilius twoo Daughters, for his Sonne and Nephewe ageanst theyre returne. The tedyus expectation of which joyned with the feare of theyre miscarrying (having beene long withoute hearing any newes from them) made hym the willinger to ease that parte of Melancholy with chaunging ye objectes of his wearyed sences. [332-33]

The full context is given to demonstrate how unobtrusively this tremendously ironic and important fact—that the two princes and princesses would have been married anyway—is offered to the reader. The really important moral is not drawn at all, is almost hidden in fact.

Even these few examples show that the narrator does not remain at a fixed distance either from his characters or from his audience. This easily confuses the modern reader, who soon learns that such a narrator cannot be trusted. We cannot follow his lead always, and cannot feel sure that we are understanding the moral orientation of the romance.

This untrustworthy narrator is one of the real difficulties of the romance. The narrator accepts Euarchus as the all-wise king and moralizes, as we have just seen, on his countless evidences of wisdom and probity. Yet the same narrator also seems to be in full sympathy with the heroic seductions carried out by the princes. His praise of them is too frequent throughout the romance to need documentation. The reader is bound to think his attitude inconsistent; in the first half of the romance he is all for love, in the second all for justice.5 It is tempting to postulate a narrator quite separate from Sidney, a persona who accepts the tale uncritically as a pastoral romance of serious, intentional, noble sentiment, and to place Sidney the author outside him altogether. We could then introduce Sidney into the romance with Euarchus and the inconsistency would be solved. But this postulation ignores the many instances of Sidney in propria persona. It fails to notice, also, the instances in which the narrator seems to see further than Euarchus does. The narrator comments, for example, on the irony of Euarchus' sitting in judgment on his son and nephew: "In suche shadowe or rather pit of Darckenes the wormish mankynde lives that neyther they knowe howe to foresee nor what to feare; and are but lyke Tennys balles tossed by the Rackett of the higher powers" (358). The opposite position—that Sidney is frank and frankly himself at all times—is as easy to refute.

The reader can never lay his hand on a constant rule, applicable to all situations. He must read carefully, of course, but even then the author's attitude toward his creation remains often puzzling, sometimes frankly ambiguous. Sidney is always getting up from his seat in the audience, climbing on stage to act a scene, turning to comment on it in an aside, arranging his characters in specific poses and facial expressions, and then going back to his seat for the next scene. Much as we would like him to stay put, he will not. This movement makes the romance much harder to interpret, but it also offers the possibility of an ultimate meaning a little more bracing than the predigested Tudor political philosophy and overcooked Petrarchan passions which are usually given as its raison d'être. For these various roles affect one another in interesting combinations. The basic action laid down by Sidney the "maker" proceeds from a single action—Basilius' withdrawal—without outside help. The narrator makes the traditional observations, often so obvious that they cause a good deal of irritation, but neglects to comment on facts he relates which are of great interest to the careful reader of the primary, unchangeable story. Immediately the two kinds of "morals," the obvious ones drawn by the narrator and those implicit in the logic of the plot, begin to be compared in the reader's mind. Sidney the "maker" begins to question the adequacy of traditional wisdom about his chosen subject of love.

The unreliable narrator introduces several difficulties of interpretation. First of all, the comedy is weakened, for we are not always sure when to laugh or how hard. L. C. Potts has written that "the first requisite of a comic narrative is that it should be precise; the finest shades of character should stand revealed, and the situation must be clear."6 Sidney is sometimes imprecise. Potts also sensibly points out that all comic narrators moralize, that comic illumination is part of the role. Sidney's fault is perhaps not intrusion but maladroit intrusion. More generally, the ambiguous narrator is at the root of the confusion as to how seriously the romance is to be taken. Doubtless it is true, as Wayne C. Booth has recently said, that "It is only by distinguishing between the author and his implied image that we can avoid pointless and unverifiable talk about such qualities as 'sincerity' or 'seriousness' in the author."7 But what do we do if we cannot distinguish between them? The thesis of Booth's brilliant book, that an author ought not to allow this confusion to occur, may be correct but hardly helps in deciding when author and "implied image" coincide and when they do not. The presence of an undependable narrator means that the romance lacks a completely reliable control, for no other character is adequate to this function. This lack is not acute when the narrator's traditional moralization is sufficient for interpretation of the events he describes, but when his comments move us in one direction and the logic of events the opposite way, the reader is bewildered. This bewilderment may, of course, be intended8 but if we suspect it to arise from inadvertent shifts of narratorial distance and posture we shall be seriously disoriented in the world of Arcadia.

Such disorientation has not been felt by many of Sidney's commentators. The license of romance has operated to excuse Sidney the narrator from anything like a consistent moral scrutiny of his own tale. This moralistic point of view, it will be immediately objected, simply does not apply to a romance. A modern reader must do as the Elizabethans did and accept the superficial moral with gusto. He must read for the rhetoric. He should not make rhetorical mouthpieces into moral beings; he should not seek out subtleties where they do not exist. But if they do exist? They obtrude themselves on any reader who is willing to credit Sidney with a moral judgment beyond the kindergarten level.

The didacticism of the Old Arcadia has been commonly misunderstood because the dialectic nature of the romance has been overlooked. The teller's ambivalent character has been ignored. Speeches have been quoted to prove that Sidney believed this or that, and a following speech which presents the opposite case has been ignored, or dismissed—if it disagreed with the commentator's theory—as token opposition erected only to be demolished. Sidney was, obviously, often more convinced by one side than by the other, but the contest, both in his own mind and in the romance, is not so one-sided as conventional moralists on the prowl for examples of virtue often proclaim. There are no easy answers to Gynecia's outcries, for example, no ready solutions for Cupid's blindness. The affirmative statement never wholly cancels out the negative one preceding it. The first stays in mind to color and add depth to the second. The proposed resolution of the two opposing forces of the romance, reason and passion, is Christian marriage. But circumstances combined to make Sidney see it as a not wholly harmonious synthesis, a sometimes inadequate compromise with passion. He clearly indicates this in the irresistible force of passion which leads up to the near-catastrophe a happy ending so narrowly averts. The proper moral is drawn, but in the teeth of contradictory evidence. We are meant to "take" the moral solution, but with the remembrance of the forces with which it must contend fresh in mind.

Sidney's fondness for dialectic in his literary practice has been obscured, as I see it, by ignoring the great sophistication of his attitude toward rhetoric. That the Old Arcadia uses rhetoric is common knowledge. That it is also about the use of rhetoric seems to me equally important. We might go so far as to say that, obliquely at least, the Old Arcadia addresses itself to the main point of defense in the Defence that rhetoric (or poetry—the two are almost synonymous in this case) is a neutral weapon, lending itself alike to good uses and bad. Cleophila/Pyrocles, for example, calms the rebel mob with the same arts she/he uses in trying to excite the mob to desert Euarchus and rally to the two princesses. Gynecia uses the same language to express her anguish as her husband does to voice his ludicrous infatuation. The many instances of ironic qualification of the speeches, which together create the tension between speech and action, show Sidney aware of the opportunity for deception that rhetorical training offered. The constant conflict in Astrophil and Stella between the direct language of real passion and the feast of cold compliment with which literature in his time set it out recurs repeatedly in the Old Arcadia. Most often it is not Sidney but one of his characters who employs the arts of rhetoric, and the reader watches it in the devil's work as often as not. The reader is not fooled. He is specifically intended to remain undeceived.

The Defence reveals how closely poetry and rhetoric were linked in Sidney's mind. Sidney's literary method in the Old Arcadia (and in Astrophil and Stella too) is, however, diametrically opposed to the rhetorical. It is dialectical through and through. The reader watches rhetoric persuade others while Sidney aims to persuade him through dialectic. A little reflection shows the informing traits of the romance to be clearly dialectical. Zandvoort has remarked Sidney's fondness for analyzing a proposition into two opposite points of view.9 Many of the rhetorical "occasions" are in fact disputations or debates. The soliloquies present, for the most part, a character arguing with himself or with the universe. The fundamental organizing principle of the eclogues is a division into two opposing camps, on both trivia and large issues. In its largest sense, the romance may be fairly described as a dialectic between reason and passion, in which each side, through an often-changing personification, uses all the devices of rhetoric to prevail over the other. Thus rhetoric, as widely as Sidney uses it, is always kept at a safe distance. Its flowers are—as it were—always smelled by somebody else. It is in this sense that the Old Arcadia is about rhetoric, about its abuses and, to be fair, its beauties as well.

Sidney must have felt he could rely on his original small, sophisticated audience properly to separate narrator and rhetorical excess. He could depend on their personal knowledge of himself to supply the needed control. He did not have to write it in. It may well be that the shifting in the New of some narrative comment to characters in the romance, which has been called an evidence of Sidney's growth as a storyteller, is actually an attempt to provide direction for the needs of a larger and anonymous audience.

A sense of the original audience excuses us from thinking that the asides to his "Fayre Ladyes" crash the barriers of fictional form. For the Old Arcadia is not a pastoral romance pure and simple, but rather a pastoral romance told by a brother to his sister. The recurrent references to his audience and to himself remind the reader of the larger context of the romance—that it is from an aristocratic brother to an aristocratic sister, that it is to be read with the lightness of touch not to be looked for in an adolescent's whole-hearted absorption in Sir Walter Scott. The reader often feels himself in the place of the fair ladies, at a third remove from what is happening in Arcadia. The asides are still another attempt by Sidney to indicate the spirit in which we are to read.

The sense of a particular audience is part of the romance. The introductory letter should be accepted to this extent at least—a general, heterogeneous audience was not envisaged. Rather we should picture a Wilton fireside. The comedy is immeasurably improved when the work is read aloud. It might be as well to think of it as something like closet drama. Set speeches or a rapid exchange of repartee were probably given dramatic heightening, perhaps divided into parts, during the reading. The songs would almost certainly have been sung. Although delivery is often the subdivision of rhetoric most briefly dealt with by writers on the subject, it is always stressed, often with poetry as an example of the advantages it offers. Aristotle, for example, comments in Rhetorica:

This [the proper method of delivery] is a thing that affects the success of a speech greatly; but hitherto the subject has been neglected. Indeed, it was long before it found a way into the arts of tragic drama and epic recitation: at first poets acted their tragedies themselves. It is plain that delivery has just as much to do with oratory as with poetry.10

Unquestionably, a reader or group of readers would have heightened the comedy, just as they would have reinforced the psychology of each scene by the gestures Sidney describes.

Youthful Sidney has been taken to task by Zandvoort as a clumsy, immature storyteller,11 and even those who praise the narrative technique of the Old do so because it is so simple and straightforward. Actually it is neither clumsy nor straightforward. The plot, as we have shown, is artful to a fault. The manner of telling may in the last analysis be equally so. If we call Sidney clumsy because he overworks the phrase "as yow shall shortly heare,"12 while ignoring, for example, the great skill with which he interweaves narration and speech, we shall distort both his skill at the time of writing the Old and his rationale in the revision. His narrative style has obvious faults—witness the cliff-hanger stratagem. But denied the grace of these warhorses, who would be saved? There are easier ways to tell a love story if that is all one wants to do. That was not all Sidney wanted to do. He was concerned to make clear his complex—perhaps contradictory—feelings about that love story, or more precisely that kind of love story. I suggest that this concern prompted him to develop a complex use of the narratorial pose which English prose fiction had not up to that time possessed.

The Sidney one imagines as author of the Old Arcadia emerges as less a plaster saint than is usually thought. He becomes, though, a shrewder author. For the dialectical approach is far superior to the rhetorical for an imaginative work. An intelligent reader is never insulted by an author's moralization if he is informed of the desperate paradox it attempts to solve. The author becomes the preacher only when he sets up his tray of simple solutions for the problems endemic to mankind. The genuinely persuasive part of his work states the paradox, not its solution. Sidney clearly saw this as an artist, if he did not always admit to it as a man. His romance is not simply a rhetorical statement of the good old truths, though there are enough of them in it. Rather it shows how perilous a life those truths have in a world "by love possessed." The Old Arcadia is a dramatic statement of the fundamentally paradoxical relation between passion on the one hand and a livable public and private order on the other. For Sidney knew that though the rhetorician can never admit to doubt, the poet—if he is wise—will never pretend to certainty.


1Sidney as Literary Craftsman, p. 243.

2Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art, trans. S. H. Butcher (4th ed. London, 1920), p. 93.

3 "Sidney," p. 21.

4 If the narrator is in some way a chorus, Sidney has an Aristotelian shield: "The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral part of the whole, and share in the action" (Butcher, p. 69).

5 This problem has been discussed apropos of the Arcadia by Kenneth T. Rowe, and a verdict of fundamental inconsistency brought in ("Romantic Love and Parental Authority in Sidney's Arcadia," University of Michigan, Contributions in Modern Philology, No. 4 [April 1947], p. 16). There, of course, the problem is easier to solve. The inconsistency results from the grafting together of two fragments of fundamentally different intent. In the Old, the remedy comes harder. Here the reader does seem to be clubbed from behind by a surprise ending à la Herman Wouk.

6Comedy (London, n.d.), p. 67.

7The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961), p. 75.

8 See below, Chapter 6, for a discussion of this.

9Sidney's Arcadia, p. 172.

10 3. 1403 b.

11Sidney's Arcadia, pp. 67 and passim.

12 Ibid., p. 84.

J. G. Nichols (essay date 1974)

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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 personality interacts with the personalities of the other sonnets. Such a comment as this is particularly relevant to Astrophil and Stella: 'Every sonnet is a compressed drama, and every sonnet-sequence is a greater drama built up of such dramatic moments.'1 Since I have discussed some sonnets, or parts of them, with reference to the main question of how we should read the drama as a whole, I shall in this chapter discuss in a little detail some of the 'dramatic moments'. I shall choose among those which seem to me to be most successful and (a further indication of the generally high standard maintained in the sequence) they will be sonnets which I have more or less neglected up to now.

The dramatic qualities of individual sonnets are evident even in comparatively small matters of technique. The frequent contrast between an elaborate tissue of figures and a simple, often colloquial, diction2 is dramatic. The beginning of the first sonnet is typical:

Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show,
That the deare She might take some pleasure of my paine:
Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pitie winne, and pitie grace obtaine,

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe …3

Here we may notice the use of alliteration, personification, and metaphor, all combined in the main figure of climax (a more complex figure than appears from these few lines, since this climax is only one of several in the poem all leading up to the main climax at the end); and we may notice too the simplicity of the diction in contrast to the complexity of the figures. This contrast is one reason why the poems in Astrophil and Stella seem so often to be both highly wrought and artless at the same time. The ending of the second sonnet may look at first like simplicity itself; certainly the diction is simple:

… And now employ the remnant of my wit,
To make my selfe beleeve, that all is well,
While with a feeling skill I paint my hell.4

If we wished for an instance of a 'natural style', the concluding couplet might well come to mind; but on a careful reading we are bound to become aware of the artifice which has gone into its making, if only when we notice that the full rhyme of 'well' and 'hell' is combined with half-rhymes made by 'all' and 'skill'.5 These half-rhymes have the effect of muting what would otherwise be a strong rhyme at the ends of the lines; the statement 'all is well', strong in itself, is qualified by the preceding 'To make my selfe beleeve'; and the last line is slowed down by the parenthetical 'with a feeling skill': these details work against the natural tendency of the couplet to seem self-confident. We gather what Astrophil means by 'the remnant of my wit', and we are glad to find that 'the remnant' is sufficient to ensure the adequate expression of his plight.

As with diction and figures, so with metre. Any writer of poetry in English is, and any reader of poetry in English ought to be, aware of the constant tug between the regular pattern of the metre and the variations caused by the speech-stress, the stress demanded by the sense and tone of the lines.6 Many things go to make up the total effect which we call 'rhythm'; but this dramatic conflict of stresses is arguably the most important. It is part of the tension there always is between a poem as a sort of ritual celebration, a well-proportioned artefact, and a poem as something that seems the natural, inevitable expression of human notions and feelings. These lines, for instance, are perfectly metrical, and to that extent are formal and even ritualistic:

It is most true, that eyes are form'd to serve
The inward light: and that the heav'nly part
Ought to be king, from whose rules who do swerve,
Rebels to Nature, strive for their owne smart.7

The inversion of the first foot in the third line, where 'Ought' takes a stress instead of 'to', is an example of a practice very common in English verse, a practice which we may call 'allowable' in the sense that it is something poets may do while still preserving the feel of a metrical pattern. It is worth mentioning, however, that such devices, now part of any poet's equipment, were not always so obvious: Sidney's metrical skill has some historical importance. One need only read Gascoigne to notice a difference:8

My woorthy Lord, I pray you wonder not,
To see your woodman shoote so ofte awrie,
Nor that he stands amased like a sot,
And lets the harmlesse deare (unhurt) go by.9

These are not lines which I would wish to denigrate, and there are signs of something metrically very interesting at the beginning of the third line; but Gascoigne's regularity is comparatively uncomplicated, with the metrical and speech stresses tending to coincide, and this is evidence of a lack of certainty about metre which is noticeable generally in English poets before Sidney and Spenser. However, Sidney's historical importance, as one of the first to exploit fully a quality of English verse which now seems obvious, is not what I am mainly concerned with here. It is the subtly dramatic use he makes of it which matters. He could, of course, have ensured a stress on 'Ought' by placing it in a position where it would take a metrical stress. But, by stressing it in conflict with the metrical pattern, he stresses it more;10 this is important in a poem whose theme is the distinction between what ought to be and what is; the extra weight on 'Ought' is a hint of what to expect later in the poem, what is stated directly in the very last line:

True, and yet true that I must Stella love.11

Such metrical dexterity is normal in Astrophil and Stella.

To say that some of the sonnets in Astrophil and Stella are better than others is only to say what might safely be hazarded by someone who had never read the sequence. I shall concentrate on some of Sidney's successes, partly because the proportion of them is very high, and partly because, with such a fine poet, effort is better spent in attempting to appreciate the subtlety of his effects than in picking out faults. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to imply that the writing in Astrophil and Stella is faultless:

There is so much careless writing in Astrophel and Stella that malicious quotation could easily make it appear a failure. Sidney can hiss like a serpent ('Sweet swelling lips well maist thou swell'), gobble like a turkey ('Moddels such be wood globes'), and quack like a duck ('But God wot, wot not what they mean').12

The main point here is sound, and the examples given speak (or 'hiss' or 'gobble') for themselves. But some caution is necessary. Certainly the last words Lewis quotes do 'quack like a duck'; but it is arguable that they are meant to: in their context, where the tone is one of mock-solemnity,13 their ludicrous sound is dramatically appropriate:

Some do I hear of Poets' furie tell,
But (God wot) wot not what they meane by it:
And this I swear by blackest brooke of hell,
I am no pick-purse of another's wit.14

Similarly, the tongue-twisting nature of a line worse than any quoted by Lewis may be a way of stressing the difficulties faced by 'Reason', who is addressed in the poem:

Why shouldst thou toyle our thornie soile to till?15

In contrast, it is easy to pick out harmonious lines:

And in her eyes of arrowes infinit.16
No lovely Paris made thy Hellen his …17
O do not let thy Temple be destroyd.18

In general, however, it is not mellifluence which we can expect, so much as a dramatic appropriateness of the sound and rhythm:

Another problem in Astrophil and Stella is the frequent inversion of word-order. Often this is justified by the emphasis it gives (we still use inversion in speech for this effect):

His mother deare Cupid offended late …20

At other times it helps to give that sense of formality, even ritual, which all poetry must have, and which is particularly needed on some occasions:

Sometimes, I must admit, it is simply a nuisance,22 it seems to be only a way (convenient to Sidney, but not to his reader) of coping with the demands of rhyme or metre:

Who hath the voyce, which soule from sences sunders,
Whose force but yours the bolts of beautie thunders?
To you, to you, all song of praise is due:
Only with you not miracles are wonders.23

The inversions in the first and second lines are rhetorically justified, since they throw the weight of emphasis on the powerful verbs 'sunders' and 'thunders'; the inversion in the third line also puts the emphasis where it is needed, on 'To you, to you'; but there seems to be an inversion in the fourth line caused by the demands of metre and possibly by the need for a rhyme, and it results in an unfortunate ambiguity. The line may mean 'Only with you miracles are not wonders';24 it may mean 'Only with you wonders are not miracles';25 or it may mean 'Only with you things that are not miracles are wonders'. The last is possibly the strongest and most appropriate sense, and it does not involve an inversion. It does, however, involve a rather strange form of expression, and our doubt as to the meaning of the line is a weakness in the poem. On the other hand, there are occasions when inversion results in a fruitful ambiguity.26

In reading any poem in Astrophil and Stella we must be alive to all sorts of ingenuity. I do not mean that we should look for any possible meaning a word could have: Sidney's ambiguities are normally precise and their presence is indicated by the context within which the various meanings co-operate. The play on 'touch' in Sonnet 9 is a case in point;27 meanings are multiplied, but in a lucid, if difficult, way, and the meanings are not such as to cancel each other out: Sidney is sure of his touch. I do not think that Sidney ever intends us to go off at a tangent to pursue any possible meanings his words may have; he wants us to be alive to the mutually supporting meanings which the context suggests. A line from one of the Certain Sonnets may illustrate the point; the poem is about desire:

Thou blind man's marke, thou foole's selfe chosen snare …28

The meaning of 'marke' here is 'target';29 but one critic, after recognizing this, says: 'But desire is the blind man's mark also because it marks him, like the patch over his eyes."30 The difficulty is that the notions of'target' and 'sign' are mutually exclusive: I do not think that anyone can read both meanings at once. One might just as well argue that 'marke' suggests a sum of money, and so desire is the sole wealth of one who cannot see what other wealth there is, and so on, and so on. If Sidney had wanted the ambiguity which Hoffman suggests, he would have shown he wanted it, and also fitted the extra meaning into the poem so that it worked with, and not against, the obvious one: many poems demonstrate his ability to do this.

Sonnet 39, 'Come sleepe, ô sleepe, the certaine knot of peace',31 has (very appropriately for a poem addressed to sleep) an almost hypnotic effect:

Even the smallest details of the sound here are beautifully controlled:

The nice variation of vowel sounds; the subtle alliteration of p, l, s, in the octave, binding the lines and quatrains together, yet interrupted in the sixth line (because of its content) by the hard dentals; the cross-alliteration in the second line (bwbw): these are some of the indications of the poet's craftsmanship.32

These details are supported by conscious rhetoric on a larger scale: the second and third lines both contain a pair of metaphors for sleep, and so are balanced within themselves and with each other, and they are rounded off by a fourth line made up of only one metaphor.33 This does not exhaust the artistry of the first four lines. The second and third lines are balanced not only in the way I have just mentioned. They are also related in a sort of syllabic chiasmus, since line 2 is made up of six syllables plus four syllables, and line 3 of four syllables plus six syllables. There is also a grammatical contrast, in the different forms used to show possession, between the two lines. The casual, throw-away manner of the eighth line is surprising in its context and contrasts dramatically with the stateliness of the poem's opening,34 a stateliness to which the rhetorical complexity I have described contributes. The poem reaches a preliminary climax in this eighth line with its promise of tribute; the line also creates further suspense, since we are waiting to hear what the tribute will be;35 the main climax comes, as so often, at the very end of the poem, when we are told that the greatest tribute offered is 'Stella's image'.

The first eight lines are mainly an assembly of images used to build up an idea of the nature and desirability of sleep, and the last six lines balance them with a catalogue of the various kinds of tribute offered:

The adjective in 'sweetest bed' may seem rather vague and weak, until we remember that this word was often used of scents; probably the reference is to scented sheets.36 With its touch of formality, 'rosie garland' contrasts with the homeliness of 'smooth pillowes'. The garland is not merely decorative; it is emblematic of silence and secrecy, as in the proverbial phrase 'sub rosa';37 and the origin of this emblem is appropri ately recalled in this poem on love and sleep; the rose was dedicated to the god of silence, Harpocrates, by Cupid in return for help in Venus' intrigues.38 Vanna Gentili has pointed out39 the subtlety in the apparently simple phrase 'thy heavy grace'. This is both a form of address to sleep and also a reference to the favour hoped for from sleep. In addition, the word 'grace' can denote a quality, and the adjective 'heavy', by its unexpectedness, suggests this further sense: we usually think of gracefulness as something light and delicate. The adjective 'heavy' is unexpected, and yet it is clearly accurate: sleep's 'grace', whether as a polite form of address, or as a favour, or as a quality, must be 'heavy' because of the torpor associated with sleep.

All these details are controlled by the main strategy of the poem, a strategy of which Sidney is very fond.40 We expect the poem to be about Stella, but it is only in the last line that the poem is explicitly brought round to her. All the previous poems of the sequence, and particularly the one immediately preceding,41 and hints in this poem itself (the 'civill warres'42 and the 'rosie garland') have led us to expect this ending, which still comes as a surprise, largely I think because of the shock of the word 'Livelier' in a poem so evocative of sleep. The last line draws together various strands in the poem: it satisfies us by taking us where we thought we must be going—to Stella; it answers the question which everything has tacitly encouraged us to ask—Why is he awake? and it brings the offers of tribute to a climax, and so compliments Stella.

Sonnet 39, while perhaps more musical than most, is still in a manner familiar from many other sonnets in Astrophil and Stella; but Sonnet 103, 'O happie Terns, that didst my Stella beare',43 comes as something of a surprise. It is comparatively undramatic, lacking conflict44 except for the simple 'faire disgrace' of Stella's dishevelment, and rather reminiscent of the more stately and straightforward sonnets of Spenser's Amoretti.45 The poem is pictorial, in a special way:

O happie Terns, that didst my Stella beare,
I saw thy selfe with many a smiling line
Upon thy cheerefull face, joye's livery weare:
While those faire planets on thy streames did shine.

This is a picture in the sense in which Sidney uses the word in his Apology: 'Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth—to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture—with this end, to teach and delight.'46 Sidney makes it clear he does not mean anything like what we call a photographic representation; this is particularly obvious in his comparison of his 'right poets' with a painter who paints qualities like 'the constant though lamenting look of Lucretia, when she punished in herself another's fault; wherein he painteth not Lucretia whom he never saw, but painteth the outward beauty of such a virtue'.47 This poem is 'a speaking picture' of Astrophil's joy; and the half-comic unreality of his addressing a river,48 and his cheerful attribution to the river of his own joy, are appropriate to his mood.

The inversion in line 5, 'The bote for joy could not to daunce forbeare', is a means of representing rhythmically the movement of the boat which is itself mentioned only because it is a picture of joy. The 'wanton winds' which twine themselves in Stella's hair are also mentioned not for the sake of naturalistic description but as a means of embodying Astrophil's own feelings. The winds are not at first visualized at all sharply:

… While wanton winds with beauties so devine
Ravisht, staid not, till in her golden haire
They did themselves (ô sweetest prison) twine.

When we are encouraged to visualize them, immediately afterwards, it is as emblematic figures:

They bring to mind the representation of the winds in Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and one cannot help wondering whether Sidney had seen this painting.49 Botticelli has a pair of 'Aeols ' youthes' puffing their cheeks to blow Venus' hair into charming disorder as she floats to land on a shell, and there is a joyful, spring-like quality, and 'a lucid elegance'50 in both works. If, as has been suggested, the painting shows 'the dual nature of love, both sensuous and chaste',51 then that is a further similarity to the poem where Stella is ashamed to be 'discheveld' and yet still worthy of the highest honour:

… She so discheveld, blusht; from window I
With sight thereof cride out; ô faire disgrace,
Let honor' selfe to thee graunt highest place.

Of course the Thames, however 'happie', makes a background very different from the stylized and unspecified sea of the Birth of Venus. In the poem the situation is mythologized in a contemporary setting. The same thing happens, with a comic effect, in Sonnet 20, 'Flie, fly, my friends, I have my death wound; fly'.52 Astrophil announces his death at the hands of a footpad; while enjoying the view he has been shot from the ambush of a 'darke bush' by a 'bloudie bullet'; he is ending up as many Elizabethans must have done. But the footpad has started his career young, he is a 'murthring boy', and turns out in fact to be Astrophil's usual antagonist Cupid, completely identified near the end of the poem by 'the glistring of his dart'. The change from 'bullet' to 'dart' is, I think, intentional: the modern and the obsolescent are mingled53 so that we have strongly presented to us both the sense of a particular situation and the universal significance of that situation. Although I think it is intentional, I am still not quite happy about this mixture; however, it is a relief to be sure that 'bullet' can here be taken in its modern sense of a small missile,54 and that we do not have to imagine a footpad firing cannon-balls.

The comic effect of the poem comes mainly from the disproportion between its theme—Astrophil has been looked at by Stella—and the imagery used to convey this.55 Details in the poem support this effect of com edy, and the poem is a good instance of witty compliment, all the more complimentary for being witty. The 'darke bush' in which Cupid lies in wait is Stella's black eyes, and

Astrophil's blissful ignorance just before he is hit is that of the clown moving into position for the custardpie, and the inversion of word-order in the first line, 'Poore passenger, passe now thereby I did,' gives just the impression of pomposity needed for the coming disaster to seem most funny. None of this is to deny that the ending of the poem seems serious:

… straight I saw motions of lightning' grace,
And then descried the glistring of his dart:
But ere I could flie thence, it pierc'd my heart.

The poem is intended seriously enough in one sense, as a compliment.

As I have already suggested,56 a compliment is all the more effective when it is offered by one who is patently intelligent and witty. Sonnet 59, 'Deare, why make you more of a dog then me?'57 comes to a climax in Astrophil's acceptance of all the demands of love, even if they include the loss of that very wit which the poem has demonstrated to be so fertile and subtle:58

This is partly a last fling in the attempt to strike some response from Stella, and partly a veiled threat to her that the compliments may stop. The poem as a whole is a series of highly ingenious arguments to prove that Astrophil is—and this is the most comic thing of all—worth more than a dog. We have therefore the dramatic paradox that Astrophil is ludicrous in his humility and admirable for his wit. The arguments are not only consistently clever, but also subtly varied in their emotional impact. Astrophil can be ardent:

Much of the effect here comes from the contrast in the rhythm of the lines: the first is only just metrical, and it plods along with but one slight break (after the first word), while the second has a heavily emphasized metre, moves quickly, and is broken twice so that the effect is of sudden, sharp, deeply felt exclamations. Almost immediately afterwards Astrophil adopts a coaxing tone:

If he be faire, yet but a dog can be.

The implication here is that Astrophil is suggesting what any reasonable person would see to be true. In the very next line the tone changes to one of scorn:

Litle he is, so litle worth is he …

Yet in one way the scorn rebounds on Astrophil, who is reduced to being scornful of a dog. The comparison of a lover to a dog was a poetical commonplace;59 the effectiveness of it in this poem does not lie only in the 'turn of wit at the end',60 fine though this is, but in the striking of a number of different right tones; the comparison is never given any more seriousness than it can bear. Once again we have a comic poem intended seriously, as a compliment.

Sonnet 75, 'Of all the kings that ever here did raigne',61 is one of those poems which begin apparently far away from Stella, only to reach her at the very end. Many of the effects in Astrophil and Stella are repeated, but usually with some variation. This poem reaches Stella only implicitly: it is an oblique indication of Astrophil's own attitude to Stella when Edward IV is praised because he

The poem is deliberately shocking. It catalogues praise-worthy qualities, especially military skill and statesmanship, which it says Edward possessed, so that he seems an outstanding example of 'virtue',62 and then it disparages these qualities:

These lines show Sidney's characteristic weaknesses as well as some of his strengths. The sound of the fourth line is not very satisfactory: it would be an exaggeration to call it cacophonous, but it is undistinguished in sound except for the f's and s's, which make it rather hard to read. In contrast the seventh line has a powerful sound which reinforces the sense:

And gain'd by Mars, could yet mad Mars so tame …

The alliteration on m draws attention to Mars and to the change in the attitude to war which the adjective 'mad' brings about. The verbs 'gain'd' and 'tame' are placed so as to stand out and contrast with each other. The structure of the line is itself an example of the wise subordination of means to ends for which Edward is said to be famous. There is a similar strength in this line:

That Ballance weigh'd what sword did late obtaine …

The line is thoughtfully poised, with 'Ballance' against 'sword' and 'weigh'd' against 'obtaine', in imitation of the consideration in Edward's mind.

There are other faults in the sound of the poem. The first eight lines are rhymed ABABBABA; but the similarity of the nasals in all the rhyme-words causes much of the distinction between the A-rhymes and the B-rhymes to be lost, so that we have the impression of an unsuccessful attempt at monorhyme. In contrast to this, the strategy of the poem is highly successful: discussion of a historical figure is brought to bear on Astrophil's personal situation, while this discussion has also its own value as political comment. Further, the poem is rather more shocking than I have so far shown. It is not simply that Edward is praised for his love rather than his statesmanship: most of the poem is devoted to stressing the statesmanship of a king who was more renowned for unscrupulous political manoeuvring and self-indulgence.63

There is, if anything, an even more patent sophistry in Sonnet 63, 'O Grammer rules, ô now your vertues show',64 where Astrophil seizes on Stella's twice saying no to him to argue

That in one speech two Negatives affirme.

Even if we read the poem with modern usage in mind, it is clear that Astrophil is indulging in sophistry, since Stella's intention was obvious; but in Sidney's day, when the double negative was a customary form of emphasis, without an affirmative effect, then the sophistry would be even greater, since Astrophil's 'Grammer rules' are those of Latin and not of English.65 It would be a misreading to object that, since the argument is false, Stella would be unlikely to be persuaded by it. Seduction by sophistry is not the intention. The whole point of the poem lies in the fact, obvious although never stated directly, that Astrophil is trying to persuade himself of the opposite of what Stella meant. The 'high triumphing' of the poem is only on the surface, a cover for an underlying sadness. Astrophil knows that he is trying to deceive himself: he admits that Stella said no twice 'Least once should not be heard.' We have again the paradox that Astrophil seems ridiculous in his attempted self-deception and also masterful and in command of the situation because of the wit which reveals he knows where he stands. If there is an epithalamic suggestion in the shout of triumph66 then this is a further touch of wit: there can be no question of a marriage between Stella and Astrophil whose intentions are far less honourable.

Sonnet 69, 'O joy, too high for my low stile to show',67 is another poem in which apparent joy partly conceals real sadness. Stella has now given her heart to Astrophil, but on a condition that detracts from much of the pleasure of this: he must take a 'vertuous course'. The shout of triumph in Sonnet 63, Io Pean', is subtly recalled here:

I, I, ô I may say, that she is mine.68

This shows once more how the poems gain when read together, and it stresses what a careful reading the poems require. The effect is important—Astrophil is shown in artistic command of a situation he finds distressing—and yet it may easily go unnoticed. It practically disappears from a modernized text:

I, I, oh I may say that she is mine.69

Like the sonnet on Edward IV, this poem uses political ideas for the expression of love, and, although the expression of love is the dominant intention, the political ideas are also interesting in their own right:

… though she give but thus conditionly
This realme of blisse, while vertuous course I take,
No kings be crown'd but they some covenants make.

Sonnet 69 is addressed to a friend 'that oft saw through all maskes my wo', and the mask in that poem is the political image. An earlier sonnet uses a different mask, one often employed in Astrophil and Stella, that of literary discussion:

Some incidental felicities may be mentioned briefly. The ambiguity in the fourth line is justified71 because both possible meanings are relevant: 'even though she herself knows what the cause of my woe is', and 'even though she knows that she herself is the cause of my woe'.72 Line 11 contains a similar relevant ambiguity in 'where new doubts honor brings'. 'Doubts' means 'qualms' or 'scruples'.73 The primary sense is that Stella's sense of honour, her chastity, makes her all the more scrupulous in the face of Astrophil's distress. There is also a secondary meaning, or implication, that the scruples bring her honour; and this meaning is critical of her, since her honour depends on Astrophil's distress. The wit and playfulness of the poem's ending should not be lost,74 particularly since, when Astrophil says 'I am not I', we are led to consider who he might be, and his literary ideas here are exactly those of Sir Philip Sidney.

The sonnet is both a complaint of Stella's cruelty and a piece of critical theory. It has been argued that, although the literary discussion is proposed as a means of discussing the love situation, the emphasis in this poem is such as to make the love situation really a way of talking about literature.75 I should not wish to go quite so far: the manifest absurdity of the suggestion in the last line makes me think that the love situation is as important here as elsewhere in the sequence. As in other sonnets,76 Astrophil manages to cover both subjects at once. The literary theory involved is that poetry may move us when reality does not. In his Apology Sidney puts it like this:77

… how much it can move, Plutarch yieldeth a notable testimony of the abominable tyrant Alexander Pheraeus, from whose eyes a tragedy, well made and represented, drew abundance of tears, who without all pity had murdered infinite numbers, and some of his own blood; so as he that was not ashamed to make matters for tragedies, yet could not resist the sweet violence of a tragedy.78

There is, in the sonnet, a comic disproportion between the 'sad Tragedie' of which Astrophil says he wants Stella to think and its analogue in Astrophil's real life (which, to complicate matters further, is an artistic creation itself): the tone of the last three lines is such as to preclude our taking the 'Tragedie' too seriously. As so often, passion disappears behind the ingenuity which makes the poem a compliment.

In that poem Astrophil is, as usual, very conscious of the part he has chosen to play. This typically Elizabethan zest in the role of the moment continually makes it hard, if not impossible, for us to assess the exact nature of Astrophil's love (not to mention Sidney's feelings which were presumably involved somehow) in any other terms than those which the poems use. I think it helps, however, to suggest that Astrophil would have appreciated what Yeats meant when he said:

O what am I that I should not seem
For the song's sake a fool?79

Sidney certainly saw no reason why he should not make Astrophil seem a fool and at the same time a skilled artist, and both for the song's sake. Astrophil's sophistication (a reflection of course of the sophistication of his creator) must be matched by a sophisticated reading. A sophisticated reading demands a constant awareness of the poems as artefacts, human fabrications which could have been different. One of the greatest pleasures of Sidney's poetic masterpiece is missed if we are not always alive, not only to the effects created, but also to the ways in which they are created. This kind of response, which Sidney could expect of his contemporary audience,80 is the kind of response which Spenser encourages us to give to the picture of Leda in the House of Busyrane:

O wondrous skill, and sweet wit of the man,
That her in daffadillies sleeping made …"'

However we look at it, Astrophil and Stella presents us with paradoxes. Astrophil talks much of his misery, and yet his conversation is a joy to listen to; the poems are witty, elaborately wrought, and sometimes enigmatic, and all while Astrophil protests his plainness and simplicity; the tone is aristocratic and masterful, perhaps most when Astrophil mentions his utter subjection to Stella; and line after line reads like 'a moment's thought'82 in the very instant of betraying, or even flaunting, its conscious artistry. Astrophil and Stella was written for an audience that saw, not mere affectation as opposed to something vaguely called 'sincerity', but a fine regard for the dignity of man in the careful choice of armour made by Amphialus in the New Arcadia:

… he furnished him selfe for the fight: but not in his wonted furniture. For now (as if he would turne his inside outwarde) he would needes appeare all in blacke; his decking both for him selfe, and horse, being cut out into the fashion of very ragges: yet all so dainty, joyned together with pretious stones, as it was a brave raggednesse, and a riche povertie: and so cunningly had a workeman followed his humour in his armour, that he had given it a rustie shewe, and yet so, as any man might perceive was by arte, and not negligence; carying at one instant a disgraced handsomnesse, and a new oldnes.83


1 F.T. Prince. "The Sonnet from Wyatt to Shakespeare," Elizabethan Poetry (Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 2), J.R. Brown and Bernard Harris, eds., 1960, p. 20.

2 Robertson, 'Sir Philip Sidney and his Poetry', p. 128.

3 W. A. Ringler, ed. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. 1962 p. 165.

4A.S. 2, ibid., p. 166.

5 N. L. Rudenstine. Sidney's Poetic Development. 1967 p. 192.

6 There is an interesting discussion of this matter in Martin Halpern, 'On the Two Chief Metrical Modes in English', P.M.L.A. lxxvii (1962), 177-86.

7A.S. 5, Ringler, p. 167.

8 Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, p. 152.

9 Gascoigne, ed. cit., 'Gascoignes woodmanship', i, 348.

10 Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, p. 151.

11A.S. 5, Ringler, p. 167.

12 Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 329.

13 See above, pp. 19-20.

14A.S. 74, Ringler, p. 204.

15A.S. 10, ibid., p. 169.

16A.S. 17, ibid., p. 173.

17A.S. 33, ibid., p. 181.

18A.S. 40, ibid., p. 185.

19A.S. 47, ibid., p. 188.

20A.S. 17, ibid., p. 173.

21A.S. 55, ibid., p. 192.

22 See above, p. 68, on C.S. 5.

23 Song 1, lines 29-32, Ringler, p. 197.

24 Ibid., p. 479.

25 Vanna Gentili, ed. Sir Philip Sidney: Astrophil and Stella. 1965 p. 367.

26 See below, p. 151.

27 See above, pp. 5-6.

28C.S. 31, Ringler, p. 161.

29 Ibid., p. 434.

30 Hoffman, 'Sidney's Thou blind man's mark', Explicator, viii (1949-50), Article 29.

31 Ringler, p. 184.

32 Muir, Sir Philip Sidney, p. 34.

33 Buxton, Elizabethan Taste, p. 284.

34 Ibid., p. 285.

35 Ibid., p. 284.

36 Ibid., pp. 284-5.

37 Ibid., p. 285.

38 Ringler, p. 473.

39 Gentili, p. 312.

40 See above, pp. 116, 132-3.

41A.S. 38, Ringler, p. 183.

42 See above, p. 117.

43 Ringler, p. 232.

44 Gentili, p. 489.

45 Spenser, p. 561.

46 Geoffrey shepherd, ed. An Apology for Poetry. 1965, p. 101.

47 Shepherd, p. 102.

48 See above, p. 132.

49 Gentili, p. 489.

50 Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance, 1967, p. 132.

51 Ibid., p. 131.

52 Ringler, p. 174.

53 Gentili, p. 260.

54 Ibid., p. 261.

55 See above, p. 134, on A.S. 48.

56 Above, p. 134.

57 Ringler, p. 194.

58 Gentili, p. 355; Kalstone, p. 160.

59 Ringler, pp. 477-8.

60 Ibid., p. 478.

61 Ibid., p. 204.

62 See above, pp. 75-6.

63 Ringler, p. 481.

64 Ibid., p. 196.

65 Ibid., p. 478.

66 R.B. Young. 'English Petrarke: A Study of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella', Three Studies in the Renaissance: Sidney, Jonson, Milton. 1958, p. 61; but see Ringler, p. 478. The use of 'io Paean' was not restricted to marriage celebrations, and for them a more precise exclamation was 'io Hymen' (see Spenser's Epithalamion, line 140, Spenser, p. 581). Nevertheless, we can easily see that 'io Hymen' would have been obviously unfitting in this context, whereas 'Io Pean' may well contain an ironic hint of marriage.

67 Ringler, p. 200.

68 Young, p. 63; Evans, op. cit., p. 104: 'There is superb irony in the way Sidney makes Astrophil's exultant cry suggest the Io, Io of the traditional marriage song, at the moment when he is protesting the purely spiritual nature of his love.'

69 Craik, op. cit., p. 59.

70A.S. 45, Ringler, p. 187.

71 But see ibid., p. 474.

72 Ibid., pp. 474-5; Gentili, p. 326.

73 Ibid.

74 Myrick, op. cit., p. 312.

75 Gentili, pp. 324-5.

76 e.g., A.S. 15, Ringler, p. 172.

77 The relation between this poem and the Apology is stressed in T. B. Stroup, 'The "Speaking Picture" Realised: Sidney's 45th Sonnet', P.Q. xxix (1950), 440-2.

78 Shepherd, p. 118.

79 Yeats, 'A Prayer for Old Age', op. cit., p. 326.

80 See above, pp. 24-5.

81F.Q. III.xi.32, Spenser, p. 203.

82 Yeats, 'Adam's Curse', op. cit., p. 88.

83 Feuillerat, ed. cit., i, 454.

Further Reading

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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.

Challenges hagiographical reports of Sidney and offers connections between his life and his writings.

Greville, Fulke. Life of the Renowned Sir Philip Sidney. 1652. Reprint. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1984,255 p.

Contemporaneous and reverential work which helped to create Sidney's legendary status.

Osborn, James M. Young Philip Sidney, Fifteen Seventy-Two to Fifteen Seventy-Seven. Ann Arbor, Mi.: Books on Demand, 1972, 591 p.

Scholarly work that includes many letters and records.

Wallace, Malcolm William. The Life of Sir Philip Sidney. 1915. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1967, 428 p.

Called "unsurpassed" by Duncan-Jones, includes significant, previously unpublished details on Sidney's childhood.


Connell, Dorothy. Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker's Mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, 163 p.

Examines Sidney's notions of love, poetry, and play.

Craft, William. Labyrinth of Desire: Invention and Culture in the Work of Sir Philip Sidney. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 1994, 163 p.

Examines Sidney in the context of his Protestant, humanist, Tudor culture.

Doherty, M. J. The Mistress-Knowledge: Sir Philip Sidney's "Defence of Poesie" and Literary Architectonics in the English Renaissance. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1991, 372 p.

Discusses the idea of universal knowledge within the context of the English Renaissance, and why Sidney found poetry to be the best means of approaching it.

Haber, Judith. "Pastime and Passion: The Impasse in the Old Arcadia." In Pastoral and the Poetics of Self-Contradiction: Theocritus to Marvell, pp. 53-97. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Analyzes the Old Arcadia and explains why Sidney found problems with the structure of the pastoral romance.

Hager, Alan. "The Exemplary Mirage: Fabrication of Sir Philip Sidney's Biographical Image and the Sidney Reader." In Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, edited by Dennis Kay, pp. 45-59. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Argues that the idealistic, popular image of Sidney interferes with our appreciation of him.

Hardison, Jr. "The Two Voices of Sidney's Apology for Poetry." English Literary Renaissance 2, No. 1 (Winter 1972): 83-99.

Examines Sidney's proofs for the excellency of poetry in the Apology and contends that the last section cannot be reconciled with the main body of the work.

Kalstone, David. Sidney's Poetry: Contexts and Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965, 195 p.

Close examination of the poetry of Arcadia and AstropheI and Stella.

Kinney, Arthur F., ed. Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1986, 458 p.

Compilation of important non-textual and non-technical papers.

——. "Sir Philip Sidney and the Uses of History." In The Historical Renaissance: New Essays on Tudor and Stuart Literature and Culture, edited by Heather Dubrow and Richard Strier, pp. 293-314. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Discusses how Sidney's poetry reflected his belief in the reading of history as instruction on how to live.

——. Sidney in Retrospect: Selections from English Literary Renaissance. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1988, 273 p.

Wide range of notable scholarly articles.

McCoy, Richard Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1979, 230 p.

Examines Astrophil and Stella and the two Arcadias, focusing on how the works relate to Elizabethan politics.

Raitiere, Martin N. Faire Bitts: Sir Philip Sidney and Renaissance Political Theory. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1984, 154 p.

Study of Sidney's political orientation that argues that Sidney's politics have generally been misconstrued.

Rudenstine, Neil L. Sidney's Poetic Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967, 313 p.

Examination of Sidney's style and technique that argues that there is continuity, consistency, and unity in all of his works.

Thompson, John. "Sir Philip Sidney." In his The Founding of English Metre, pp. 139-55. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Study of the "perfection" of Sidney's metre.

Wilson, Jean. Entertainments for Elizabeth I. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980, 179 p.

Includes description and study of Sidney's The Four Foster Children of Desire.

Additional coverage of Sidney's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research : Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 19.

A. C. Hamilton (essay date 1977)

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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 honour and fame, 'that last infirmity of noble mind', marks most men of the time. In particular, it marks Sir Philip Sidney. Because he was born great, great expectations were held for him throughout his life; after his death, his reputation for personal greatness helped to establish the legend that he was the ideal Renaissance gentleman. Like Malvolio, however, he has been mocked by greatness: the legend thrust upon him has prevented any understanding of the life he actually lived by placing a barrier between his life and works, and between both and the modern reader.

Sidney was born great. He was the eldest son of a family distinguished on his father's side for several generations by personal service to English kings. This lineage was acknowledged by the French king when he elevated him to a Gentleman Ordinary, 'considerans combien est grande la maison de Sydenay en Angleterre'.1 He was even more distinguished on his mother's side. His father told him to remember 'the noble blood you are descended of by your mother's side; and think that only by virtuous life and good action you may be an ornament to that illustrious family'.2 Later Sidney boasted that 'though in all truth I may justly affirm that I am by my father's side of ancient and always well esteemed and well matched gentry, yet I do acknowledge, I say, that my chiefest honour is to be a Dudley'.3 Such great birth, particularly as he was for much of his life the prospective heir of his rich—and childless—uncles, the earls of Leicester and Warwick, gave great hope for advancement, as Hubert Languet, his chief mentor and tutor, indicated to the ambassador of Poland during Sidney's tour of Europe:

His father is the Viceroy of Ireland, with whom, I am told, scarcely anyone among the nobility of England can compare in virtus and military experience.

His mother is a sister of the Earl of Warwick and of Robert the Earl of Leicester, the most favoured at Court: since neither has children, this gentleman [i.e. Sidney] will probably be their heir.

His father's sister is married to the Earl of Sussex…. His mother's sister is the wife of the Earl of Huntingdon, who is related to the Royal family.

Neither nobleman has any sons: so that on this one person they have placed their hopes, and him they have decided to advance to honour after his return.4

Sidney's own recognition of his position is suggested by his emblem, 'Spero'.5 For few in that age were prospects through high birth more dazzling.

Yet Sidney was not born great enough. His mother's family was tainted by treason. His great-grandfather was executed by Henry VIII for extortion; the year before he was born, his grandfather, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, was executed for treason; and in the year that he was born, his uncle, Guilford, was also executed for treason. Although Sidney boasted 'I am a Dudley in blood', he did so in the course of defending his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, against the anonymous libel that 'from his ancestors, this Lord receiveth neither honour nor honesty, but only succession of treason and infamy'.6 He could excuse the fall of his family only on grounds that it was high enough to fall:

Our house received such an overthrow, and [as?] hath none else in England done; so I will not seek to wash away that dishonour with other honourable tears. I would this island were not so full of such examples; and I think, indeed, this writer, if he were known, might in conscience clear his ancestors of any such disgraces. They were too low in the mud to be so thunderstricken.7

Sidney's mixed pride in his ancestors, and his recognition that he must act himself, is nicely registered in the motto which he wore under his arms: Vix ea nostra voco (I hardly dare call our ancestors' deeds our own).8

But worse than this, his father's family was blighted by poverty. The Sidney family was, as he admits, 'so youngly a fortuned family':9 it was, in fact, impoverished, and became increasingly so. The family place at Penshurst was granted to his grandfather only two years before Sidney was born, and his father always lacked the means to maintain his state. Sir Henry's lengthy service to the Queen—he was thrice Lord Deputy Governor of Ireland besides being Lord President of the Marches of Wales—was rewarded only by new service which left him deeper in debt. He was forced to refuse a barony because he could not afford to maintain the rank. As a result, Sidney more than most experienced the special crisis of the Elizabethan aristocracy: being forced to attend court, courtiers so neglected their own affairs that they became increasingly dependent on the Queen for their support.10 Fulke Greville records how for him—and it would be the same for Sidney—the Queen's actions 'fell heavy in crossing a young man's ends', and how she 'made me live in her court a spectacle of disfavour, too long as I conceived'.11 For reasons of her own, she with-held her favours from the Sidney family, forcing them to beg, usually in vain, for the means to live. As a consequence, Sidney was in debt all his life; and not only did he die bankrupt, but left such debt that his father-in-law, in discharging it, became bankrupt.

The promise of Sidney's birth proved to be only disappointing. If Leicester had married the Queen, if Warwick had left him his wealth, if the Queen had favoured him: but none of these things happened. Leicester married instead the widow of the Earl of Essex, and their son, born in 1581, became heir to the family fortunes. At the next tilt-day, according to Camden, Sidney wore the impresa thus dashed through, to show his hope therein was dashed'.12 Although Leicester's son died three years later, Sidney's two rich uncles outlived him. The Queen never favoured him, and knighted him only because the Prince of Orange, who was to receive the Order of the Garter, named him his proxy, an office that protocol required should bear a title. Two minor events reveal his position at court. When the Queen granted him stipends from lands confiscated from Roman Catholics, he protested: 'I think my fortune very hard that my reward must be built upon other men's punishments';13 then he accepted the gift. When the Earl of Oxford called him a 'puppy' during a quarrel on a tennis court, Sidney challenged him to a duel, but the Queen forced him to withdraw, laying before him 'the difference in degree between Earls and Gentlemen; the respect inferiors ought [owed] to their superiors'.14 All his life Sidney lived only on the fringe of the establishment and under the shadow of greatness.

Sidney was expected to achieve greatness through public service, as his father recognized when he advised his sons 'that if they meant to live in order, they should ever behold whose sons, and seldom think whose nephews, they were'.15 Sir Henry spent his life in public service, fulfilling what Malcolm Wallace describes as his 'engrossing conviction that only in disinterested service for prince and country could a man find a worthy end toward the achieving of which he could bend the whole of his energies'.16 Sidney was expected to follow his father's example. He was groomed for public service first by his education at Shrewsbury School and Christ Church, Oxford, and then by an extended continental tour from 1572-5. By the end of that tour, he was poised to play a major role in England's affairs. In 1576, the dying Essex said of him: 'he is so wise, so virtuous and godly; and if he go on in the course he hath begun, he will be as famous and worthy a gentleman as ever England bred'.17 His youth—he was only 22—was bright with promise. Yet all his effort to achieve greatness came to little: apart from one embassy in 1577, he was not employed by the Queen in any important office until the year of his death. His life had a promising beginning and an heroic end, but no middle in public service. A recent biographer, Roger Howell, quite rightly concludes that the central event of Sidney's career was his death.18 The explanation of his failure—if any is needed for a man who died in his thirty-first year—is simply that 'his short life and private fortune were … no proper stages to act any greatness of good or evil upon'.19

Sidney had greatness thrust upon him by his death. The circumstances which led to his death, the death itself, and the national orgy of grief on the occasion of his extravagant funeral in London four months later, promoted the legend that he embodied all the values cherished by the age: the ideal man, the perfect knight and pattern of the courtier, the mirror of princes and 'the world's delight'.20

In the previous year, by forcing the Queen's hand, Sidney initiated the sequence of events which led to his death. Frustrated at his failure to be appointed to the English expeditionary force to Holland, he was determined to accompany Drake to Virginia. Before he could sail, the Queen forbade him to leave, and promised to appoint him Governor of Flushing and General of the Horse. His appointment was confirmed on 9 November 1585, and he arrived in the Netherlands later that month. For the next nine months he was engaged in preparing the defences for the coming war against Spain. After waiting almost a decade to serve his country, at last he was given his great opportunity. As governor of Flushing, he could embody Sir Thomas Elyot's governor, that ideal of civic humanism expressed in Erasmus's claim that 'there is no better way to gain the favor of God, than by showing yourself a beneficial prince for your people'.21 In leading a successful assault against the city of Axel, he was able to display himself as the ideal captain. As Stow records, Sidney addressed his men before the assault with an oration that 'did so link the minds of the people, that they desired rather to die in that service, than to live in the contrary'.22 In the assault, not one English soldier was lost while all the defenders were massacred. George Whetstone, who may have served under Sidney, records that 'he always was a special favourer of soldiers'.23 Then on 22 September in a minor skirmish at Zutphen against some Spanish forces, he was mortally wounded because he had discarded his leg-armour when he saw a fellow-knight not wearing his. Fulke Greville's account of what followed is too well known to be omitted:

The horse he rode upon … forced him to foresake the field, but not his back, as the noblest and fittest bier to carry a martial commander to his grave. In which sad progress, passing along by the rest of the army … and being thirsty with excess of bleeding, he called for drink, which was presently brought him; but as he was putting the bottle to his mouth, he saw a poor soldier carried along, who had eaten his last at the same feast, ghastly casting up his eyes at the bottle. Which Sir Philip perceiving, took it from his head, before he drank, and delivered it to the poor man, with these words, 'Thy necessity is yet greater than mine'. And when he had pledged this poor soldier, he was presently carried to Arnheim.24

Sidney's failure to wear leg-armour displays the conspicuous bravery, or bravado, of the Renaissance courtier. That act is closely related to his act of offering water to the soldier. A gesture which is flamboyant in not caring for himself has its counterpart in caring for another. Both acts are private, yet become fully public in that they display ideals of personal and social behaviour.

The twenty-five days between being wounded at Zutphen and dying of gangrene poisoning at Arnheim allowed Sidney to act out his death in a fitting manner. While his preparations for death enact the ritual of holy dying expected of any Christian, some details are personal. He asked that a song which he entitled 'La cuisse rompue' (The Broken Thigh) be set to music and played to him; but he also asked that his Arcadia be burned, for 'he then discovered, not only the imperfection, but vanity of these shadows'.25 He repented what his closest friend, Fulke Greville, terms obliquely 'the secret sins of his own heart', which an attending chaplain, George Gifford, spells out as the final vanity which Sidney feared would prevent his salvation: 'a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself. It was my Lady Rich. But I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned.'26 Greville records also that Sidney asked 'the opinion of the ancient heathen touching the immortality of the soul; first, to see what true knowledge she retains of her own essence, out of the light of herself; then to parallel with it the most pregnant authorities of the Old, and New Testament, as supernatural revelations, sealed up from our flesh, for the divine light of faith to reveal, and work by'.27 Orthodoxy allowed that knowledge of the soul's immortality was attainable by natural reason, and the concern to fuse reason and revelation is characteristic of most men of the age; but what seems deeply personal is Sidney's concern, surprising at this late hour, with what reason alone may reveal and how it may lead to faith. Interest in what reason may discover of Christian truth had led to his translating De Mornay's De la verité de la religion Chrestienne;28 and interest in reason working apart from faith may have encouraged him to use the classical Arcadia as the setting for his prose fiction: his characters debate moral virtue, and even answer atheism, without the support of revelation. His concern with man as a rational being shows why his writings remain profoundly secular despite his strongly religious nature.

The basis of the Sidney legend was laid during his life by the great expectations held out for him: for example, in Essex's dying prophecy cited above, that he 'will be as famous and worthy a gentleman as ever England bred', and in his father's eloquent judgment, which seems sincere, when he advised his son Robert to 'imitate his [Sidney's] virtues, exercises, studies, and actions; he is a rare ornament of this age, the very formular that all welldisposed young gentlemen of our court do form also their manners and life by. In truth, I speak it without flattery of him, or of myself, he hath the most rare virtues that ever I found in any man.'29 While Sidney aroused some envy, praise of him by his contemporaries was almost uniformly extravagant, even by Renaissance standards. Later, when the Elizabethan age was idealized, as it was by Daniel, for example, Sidney became its exemplar.30 It is surprising to learn that the legend continued in later centuries. In Adonais, Shelley writes: 'Sidney, as he fought / And as he fell and as he lived and loved / Sublimely mild, a Spirit without spot'.31 The legend survives even today, for example, in Yeats's poem, 'In memory of Major Robert Gregory'. Sidney's best biographer, Malcolm Wallace, tries his best to be impartial by listing his faults:

He was foolishly extravagant in the spending of money, and was sometimes forced to seek to improve his financial position by means which were at least not dignified. He was somewhat arrogant and hot-headed. He was inclined to be egotistical…. To us there appears something strangely simple in Sidney's attitude toward most of life's problems. It is scarcely possible that he had been seriously touched by the philosophic and scientific stirrings of his time. His religious beliefs were as simple as those of a little child. None of the daring speculations of Bruno or the scepticism of the intellectuals of his day finds utterance in his writings. His only religious doubts had to do with his failure to be obedient to the God who was his heavenly Father. His political creed could hardly have been more simple. The enemies of England and of Protestantism were his enemies.

Yet he allows that 'no one can have familiarized himself with the details of Sidney's life without realizing what a large measure of truth there is in the popular conception of his character'.32

The legend may strike us simply as a legend, one that may be challenged by Sidney's own argument in the Defence for placing the poet's image of an ideal man above the work of Nature: 'Nature never set forth … so excellent a man every way.' One may wonder if there is any conflict between the life and the legend. Katherine Duncan-Jones refers to the gap 'which is often to be found between the magnificence of his personality and reputation, and the prosaic or even sordid facts of his life'.33 Yet nothing that we know reveals any clash in Sidney himself between 'reality' and the ideal: there is no man apart from the legend, no face under the mask. From the beginning he seems to have lived a fully public life, which he sought to shape into an ideal of virtue expressed in public service. From all that we know, he dedicated his life to fulfil what was expected of him by his family and friends. As a result, his life satisfies Milton's dictum that the poet 'ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition, and pattern of the best and honourablest things, not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy'.34 If there is no man behind the legend, there is a man in it—one who tried to live as he ought, and succeeded.

The problem about the legend is not only that it overwhelms Sidney's life as known from his biography, but also that it all but ignores his life as a writer. Outside his circle of close friends, few of his contemporaries knew enough to praise him as a poet. One is Scipio Gentili:

Others admire in you, Philip Sidney, the splendour of your birth—your genius in your childhood, capable of all philosophy—your honourable embassy undertaken in your youth, and … the exhibition of your personal valour and prowess in the public spectacles and equestrian exercises, in your manhood: let others admire all these qualities. I not only admire, but I love and venerate you, because you regard poetry so much as to excel in it.35

No contemporary, except Greville, seems to have suspected that Sidney would achieve greatness through his literary works. Since his works were not published during his lifetime, except by the circulation of manuscripts among close friends, he remained largely unknown as a writer.

More letters to Sidney, and by him—165 and 117 respectively, by Osborn's count—survive than for any other writer of his age; yet none reveals any plans for writing or comments even indirectly upon what he had written. For the poetry there is only one reference in a letter to a friend urging him to sing his songs; for the prose fiction, the promise in a letter to his brother to send him his 'toyful book' and the reported deathbed wish to have the Arcadia burned. As a consequence, none of his works may be dated with certainty, and even their titles are confused.36 Only when it is known that he was not busy at court may one infer that he was free to write. He seems to have lived two separate lives: a known life as a Renaissance courtier seeking political office, and a private life as a poet. Accordingly, the standard biography by Malcolm William Wallace treats Sidney's writings separately, and so does the most recent biography by Roger Howell. James M. Osborn's extended study of Young Philip Sidney 1572-1577 provides only one fact directly relevant to Sidney as a writer, a passing reference to his songs.

That the legend and known facts of Sidney's life all but ignore him as a writer is astonishing when one considers what he achieved in his writings simply in terms of comprehensiveness and orginality, and the commitment which that achievement demanded of him.

When Sidney began writing in the late 1570s or early 1580s, the English literary scene was barren. As he notes in the Defence of poetry, apart from a few works of worth such as Surrey's lyrics and Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, a wasteland stretched back to Chaucer. Of Chaucer he wonders 'whether to marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age go so stumblingly after him'. One may infer what he intended to do about this lamentable state from what he did, that is, by his literary criticism, writings, and influence, create a Renaissance of English literature. He was seen as the leader of such a Renaissance by Daniel in an address to Sidney's sister in 1594:

Now when so many pens (like spears) are charg'd,
To chase away this tyrant of the north;
Gross Barbarism, whose power grown far enlarg'd
Was lately by thy valiant brother's worth
First found, encountered, and provoked forth:
Whose onset made the rest audacious,
Whereby they likewise have so well discharg'd,
Upon that hideous beast encroaching thus.

When Astrophel and Stella appeared in 1591, Nashe heralded it as a work which ushers in the golden age: 'Tempus adest plausus; aurea pompa venit: so ends the scene of idiots, and enter Astrophel in pomp', and Thomas Newman, who published the first edition, called it a work 'wherein the excellence of sweet poesy is concluded'.37 Ringler concludes that 'no previous English poet, from Old English to Tudor times, even approached Sidney in the variety and complexity of metrical forms that he used'.38 Henry Olney, the first editor of the Defence of poetry, refers to 'excellent poesy, so created by this Apology'.39 Finally, the Arcadia is the first work of original prose fiction in our language, the first prose work of European stature in English, and one in which, as Virginia Woolf saw, 'as in some luminous globe, all the seeds of English fiction lie latent'.40 Through these three works Sidney became the seminal writer of the Elizabethan age: Astrophel and Stella initiated the Petrarchan sonnet cycle in English as a literary form, the Defence provided the critical basis for Elizabethan literature, and the Arcadia promoted first a school of Arcadian fiction and later, through Richardson's Pamela, the English novel. At a time when the English literary scene was barren, and it was necessary to demonstrate that the English language was, as he claimed in the Defence, 'indeed capable of any excellent exercising of it', Sidney appeared as the one right man at the right time. Through his critical insight and literary craftsmanship, he pointed to what should be done and showed how it could be done.

To achieve such originality in poetry, literary criticism, and prose fiction, Sidney read widely and thoroughly in earlier literature. As sources of his poetry, Ringler cites Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Petrarch, Sannazaro, Montemayor and his continuators, and Tottel's Songs and Sonnets.41 As sources of the Defence, Shepherd cites Scaliger, Elyot, Agrippa, Landino, Horace, Plato, and Aristotle, and adds Sidney's wider reading in humanist writing: 'he read in Petrarch, Boccaccio, Tasso, Mantuan, Pontanus, Sannazaro, Erasmus, More, Ascham, Ramus, Bembo, Patrizi, Bodin, Buchanan, Ronsard, du Bartas. He knew the old Roman poets, historians, moralists, and dramatists well. Certain books and authors were particularly congenial to him: Plutarch notably, and the Bible; also Xenophon, Virgil, and Seneca.'42 While the sources of the Arcadia are few—chiefly Sannazaro, Montemayor, Amadis of Gaul, and Heliodorus—they reveal that Sidney drew comprehensively upon what earlier literature could provide as models in the classical, medieval, and modern periods. Further, he thoroughly assimilated his reading so that each of his writings is a well-wrought artifact, uniquely his own, and characterized by an original argument and careful, deliberate structure. Even in size these works are considerable, particularly Astrophel and Stella with its 108 sonnets and II songs, and the Arcadia with its 180,000 words in its first version (later expanded to more than 230,000 words) interlaced with over 70 poems either set within the prose or organized into the eclogues that conclude the separate books. Yet the biography of Sidney provides almost no record of this labour.

One might conclude that Sidney's works are unrelated to his life and to the age in which he lived. Ringler notes that his poetry 'is remarkable for what he did not write about':

He was a courtier, but except for some passages in The Lady of May he never wrote in praise of the Queen. He was sincerely religious, but he never wrote a poem of personal devotion. He placed a high value upon friendship, but except for his 'Two Pastorals' and a single mention of Languet he never wrote a commendatory or memorial poem for a real person. The major interest of his life was politics, but only once did he deal with problems of government, and then under the veil of a beast fable. Except for Astrophil and Stella his verse was neither official nor personal and dealt almost entirely with imagined situations.43

One may add that he chose to write a defence of poetry, which he himself refers to as 'this ink-wasting toy of mine', while his friends wrote political and religious tracts in defence of liberty and the Protestant faith, and that the setting of his Arcadia, which he refers to as 'a trifle, and that triflingly handled', is classical Greece rather than one which could have easy allegorical reference to contemporary England. According to Coleridge's distinction, Sidney would seem to be the kind of impersonal poet, like Shakespeare, who leaves no trace of himself in his works, and not the personal poet, like Milton, who may be found in every line that he writes.

Yet Sidney's presence dominates all his works. In the Old Arcadia, he inserts himself into the story as the character Philisides; and as narrator everywhere controls and directs the reader's response. Astrophel and Stella centres upon Astrophel, whom no reader may fail to associate with Sidney. The argument of the Defence is persuasive chiefly because of Sidney's persuasive voice. The ideals treated in the New Arcadia are Sidney's as well as those of his class and age. While his writings are never personal in the sense of treating the stuff of biography—courtly gossip, quarrels, rumours of appointments, or whatever is simply personal—they are always centrally concerned with the business of a man (and that man is Sidney) living at a certain moment and place in human history. Equally his writings are never impersonal in the sense of treating man or mankind: they are dominated by the presence of an individual man responding to the immediate pressures of his life and times.

I see a close and significant relationship between Sidney and his writings, and between both and his age. That relationship is not direct: the writings do not reveal his actual life—whatever that may have been like; instead, his life provides the setting, occasion, or point of departure for what he writes. While the personal is included in all that he writes, it is transcended. He was not a Romantic poet for whom poetry could record the spontaneous overflow of emotions. He is never personal, as Spenser is, and could never begin a poem, as Spenser does, with the line, 'Lo I the man, whose Muse whilom did mask'—not even with Virgil's authority. On the other hand, in reading Sidney one never reaches the point as one soon does with Spenser, where the writer's life and times become irrelevant. If one could strip the mask from Sidney's persona, most likely one would uncover another mask, and another under that. The reason, I suspect, is that from his birth he began to live the legend confirmed by his death; and, to adapt Keats's phrase, his works are comments on it. By his own nature, as well as by nurture, education, and the urging of his friends, he shaped his life into an image of virtue. Or to adapt his own words in the Defence, his essential life is not recorded in what is, but rather in 'what may be and should be'. He lived on the level of art; or, as he might say, he lived by rules of decorum which required him to fulfil the promise of his birth and place in society.

As a result of the kind of life that he lived, his life and works are closely related to his age. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that of all those who attended Elizabeth's court, he should be singled out as the ideal Renaissance gentleman, the one alone who may be awarded the praise given the young Hamlet: 'the courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword; / Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th' observ'd of all observers'. As with his life, his works have become the norm by which we may understand the nature of the English literary Renaissance. Accordingly, Richard B. Young interprets Sidney as the English Petrarch; C. S. Lewis sees the Arcadia as a kind of touchstone or work of distillation that 'gathers up what a whole generation wanted to say'; and Shepherd notes of the Defence that Sidney's 'articulations are moments of European self-consciousness'.44 One reason why his life is so closely related to his age is that his mind was receptive to ideas, comprehensive in scope, and constantly eclectic and assimilative. By virtue of his birth, position, promise of political power, and apparently great personal charm, he was sought out by the chief men of his day: there was no movement in politics, philosophy, or religion to which he was not exposed. One may say of all his writings what Shepherd says of the Defence, that the more it is studied, 'the more astonishing appears Sidney's sensitivity to contemporary intellectual development, in the arts, in religion, in politics, and in science'.45 The movements in current thought to which he was exposed did not lead him to endorse any personal or independent position, in part because he sought instead a synthesis in which opposing points of view were balanced; in part because he had a unifying, rather than a unified, sensibility; and in chief part because of an introspective nature which separated him from the world even while he was deeply engaged in it. Greville, who knew him best, understood this Christian position of being in the world yet not of it:

… When Sir Philip found this, and many other of his large and sincere resolutions imprisoned within the plights of their fortunes, that mixed good and evil together unequally; and withal discerned how the idlecensuring faction at home had won ground of the active adventurers abroad; then did this double depression both of things and men lift up his active spirit into an universal prospect of time, states, and things: and in them made him consider what possibility there was for him, that had no delight to rest idle at home, of repropounding some other foreign enterprise, probable and fit to invite that excellent Princess's mind and moderate government to take hold of. The placing of his thoughts upon which high pinnacle laid the present map of the Christian world underneath him.46

One consequence was that while Sidney led a fully public life, one in which he always played a role on the public stage, and his writings respond fully to the pressures of his time, his life and writings are not submerged by the age. Both remain highly individual. In Geoffrey Whitney's A choice of emblems (1586), the emblem addressed to Sidney is entirely fitting: it shows a plumed horseman on a prancing war-horse, with the motto: non locus virum, sed vir locum ornat. Another consequence is that Sidney gained the perspective of the poet, of one not being subject to nature but 'having all … under the authority of his pen'.47 While the world 'mixed good and evil together unequally', he was free to assume the poet's task of separating them, what Jonson aptly describes as the 'proper embattling' of the virtues and vices.48

… Sidney's life is closely related to his works, and both to the age, [and] I may illustrate it briefly here by tracing his use of a common motif: life as a prison which tests man's worth. The motif is based on the religious view that the soul is imprisoned by the body, as in the Psalmist's cry, 'Bring my soul out of prison.' For Sidney, that view would be confirmed on the secular level by his own confined life, largely spent waiting impatiently, and finally in despair, for some public appointment. The image of man's body or mind confined in a dungeon is found throughout his poetry, as in Pyrocles's lament in the Old Arcadia:

… the stormy rage of passions dark
(Of passions dark, made dark by beauty's light)
With rebel force hath closed in dungeon dark
My mind ere now led forth by reason's light.

The testing of man's worth by imprisonment provides the climax to that work: when Pyrocles and Musidorus are imprisoned and then sentenced to death, they fully reveal their virtue.49 So, too, at the end of Astrophel and Stella: even when his life as the lover of the star is reduced to a 'dungeon dark', he rejoices in his love, and thereby proves himself to be one 'loving in truth'. At the climax to the New Arcadia, the two princesses, Philoclea and Pamela, manifest their virtue when they are imprisoned in Amphialus's castle. Behind all these works is the view, implicit in Sidney's poetic theory, that man's virtue is tested by the confines of life, and the faith that virtue makes man free.

'Our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it': this observation in the Defence50 may serve as an epigraph to Sidney's life and works. Central to his thought is an awareness of the gulf between man's life as it is and as it should be. In his poetry and prose he shows how reality falls short of the ideal, and in the Defence he justifies the work of the poet on the grounds that it may best move the reader's 'infected will' to embrace the perfection which he knows by his 'erected wit'. His phrases, 'erected wit' and 'infected will' suggest generally the central secular and religious movements of the age, which H. J. C. Grierson identifies as its cross-currents, and specifically the two traditional views of man's nature, the one optimistic as it affirms man's perfectibility and the other pessimistic as it affirms his corruption.51 The former is associated with the neo-Platonists, such as Pico della Mirandola whose Oration on Human Dignity allows man freedom so to fashion himself that he may become at one with Godhead itself. This view of human nature tends to ignore original sin, manifest in the 'infected will', and allows man to depend in some measure upon himself, upon good works apart from grace. The latter is associated with the Calvinists who stress man's radical imperfection in his fallen state: since man is deprived of his original perfection and depraved through sin, his will is so infected that he must depend entirely upon God's grace.

As a humanist, Sidney acknowledges man's 'erected wit': he believes with Erasmus that man may be shaped through education—homines non nascuntur, sed finguntur. As a Protestant, he notes man's 'infected will': the doctrine of the Fall provides the basis of his religious beliefs. His careful balancing of the two phrases reveals him to be a Christian humanist who believes that man is radically imperfect, but stresses the possibility of his regeneration. Douglas Bush's comment on the confidence in the goodness and greatness of man among the chief writers of the Renaissance applies, above all, to Sidney: 'that confidence was one element in Christian humanism, but it was kept in check by a religious sense of man's littleness and sinful frailty…. With a simultaneous double vision they see man as both a god and a beast. That double vision is, to be sure, the mark of the greatest writers of all ages, especially the ancients; but the Christian religion intensified the paradox by exalting man's sense of his divinity and deepening his sense of bestiality.'52 In this double view of man, the secular and religious need not conflict: the end of learning is not to rival God but, in Milton's words, 'to repair the ruins of our first parents'.53 Sidney would agree with Milton's complaint in Tetrachordon that 'nothing nowadays is more degenerately forgotten than the true dignity of man, almost in every respect'.54 Yet his full awareness of man's 'true dignity' is based upon his full acceptance of the doctrine of man's 'infected will'. While he was receptive to the most radical intellectual currents of his time, he 'made the religion he professed the firm basis of his life'.55 As a result, his writings reveal the central conflicts in his age between the Renaissance and the Reformation. Since they treat man's life comprehensively in relation both to his own nature and to his society, Sidney deserves his legend as the representative Elizabethan—representative, that is, of the age at its best.


Astrophel and Stella
Certain sonnets
The Lady of May
New Arcadia
Old Arcadia


Feuillerat The complete works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed Albert Feuillerat. Cambridge 1912-26. Volumes cited: I. NA; II. 1593 Arcadia; III. Correspondence

Levy The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, 1573-1576, tr. and ed Charles Samuel Levy, unpub. doctoral diss. Cornell 1962

Pears The correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, tr. Steuart A. Pears. 1845

Prose Miscellaneous prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan von Dorsten. Oxford 1973. Prose cited: Defence of the Earl of Leicester; A defence of poetry; Discourse on Irish affairs; LM; A letter written … to Queen Elizabeth; George Gifford, The manner of Sir Philip Sidney's death

Ringler The poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed William A. Ringler, jr. Oxford 1962

Robertson Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), ed Jean Robertson. Oxford 1973

Shepherd Sir Philip Sidney, An apology for poetry, ed Geoffrey Shepherd. 1965


Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature
Comparative Literature
Journal of English Literary History
English Language Notes
English Literary Renaissance
English Studies
Huntington Library Quarterly
Journal of English and Germanic Philology
Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes
Modern Language Quarterly
Modern Language Review
Modern Philology
Papers on Language and Literature
Philological Quarterly
Review of English Studies
Renaissance Quarterly
Studies in English Literature
Studies in Philology
Texas Studies in Literature and Language


1 James M. Osborn, Young Philip Sidney, 1572-1577 (New Haven 1972) 54.

2 Malcolm William Wallace, The life of Sir Philip Sidney (Cambridge 1915) 69.

3Defence of the Earl of Leicester, in Miscellaneous prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten (Oxford 1973) 134.

4 Osborn 246.

5 George Whetstone, Sir Philip Sidney: his honourable life, his valiant death and true virtues (1587) B3r.

6The copy of a letter [Leicester's commonwealth] (1584) 196.

7Prose 139.

8 The motto is Ulysses's reproof to Ajax who claims that he deserves Achilles's arms because of the deeds of his ancestors (Ovid, Metamorphoses xiii 141). Like Spenser's Red Cross Knight, Sidney wears borrowed armour for which he must prove himself worthy. On his keen interest in imprese, see Katherine Duncan-Jones, 'Sidney's personal imprese', JWCI 33 (1970) 321-4.

9The complete works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge 1912-26) III 139.

10 See Lawrence Stone, The crisis of the aristocracy 1558-1641 (Oxford 1965) 385. He notes (403) that 'by the 1580s the key to advancement lay at the Court'.

11 Sir Fulke Greville, Life of Sir Philip Sidney etc. (1652), ed Nowell Smith (Oxford 1907) 146, 148. The work was written between 1610 and 1614; see Joan Rees, Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1971) 25.

12 William Camden, Remains concerning Britain (1605) 174.

13 Feuillerat III 140.

14 Greville 67-8.

15 Noted Edmund Molyneux, in Holinshed, Chronicles (1587) 1550.

16 Wallace 71.

17 Wallace 169.

18 Roger Howell, Sir Philip Sidney, the Shepherd Knight (1968) 5. Virgil B. Heltzel and Hoyt H. Hudson, ed and tr. Nobilis [1589] by Thomas Moffet (San Marino 1940) xxiii, note that 'all of the early writers upon Sidney laid as much stress upon his death as upon his life', for they felt that his death 'was as great and as full of significance as his life—that, indeed, the end crowned the work'.

19 Greville 41.

20 Sir Walter Raleigh, 'Epitaph upon the right honourable Sir Philip Sidney', in Spenser, Minor poems, ed Ernest de Sélincourt (Oxford 1910) 366. Unfortunately, the elegies on Sidney must be heavily discounted because they compete in fulsome praise. Sidney's reputation and influence have been traced by W. H. Bond, unpub. diss. (Harvard 1941) and his emerging legend by R. S. Esplin, unpub. diss. (Utah 1970). See also Jan van Dorsten, Poets, patrons, and professors: Sir Philip Sidney, Daniel Rogers, and the Leiden humanists (1962) 152-66 and Appendix I.

21 Desiderius Erasmus, The education of a Christian prince, tr. Lester K. Born (New York 1936) 154. On the humanist emphasis upon public service, see John M. Major, Sir Thomas Elyot and Renaissance humanism (Lincoln, Neb. 1964). Wallace 373 notes that the Burgomaster and Council of Flushing esteemed Sidney an ideal governor.

22 John Stow, The annals of England (1592) 1245.

23Sir Philip Sidney B2v.

24 Greville 129-30.

25 Greville 138, 16. In The Ruins of Time 594-5 Spenser records that Sidney, 'most sweetly sung the prophecy / Of his own death in doleful elegy'.

26 Greville 135. George Gifford, 'The manner of Sir Philip Sidney's death', in Prose 169.

27 Greville 137. On Sidney's interest in 'the opinion of the ancient heathen', see D. P. Walker, The ancient theology (1972) 132-63.

28 Chapter 15 is entitled 'That the immortality of the soul hath been taught by the philosophers of old time'.

29 Arthur Collins, Letters and memorials of state (1746) I 246. Greville 6 records that he heard Sir Henry call his son lumen familiae suae.

30 Epistle to The tragedy of Philotas (1605) 77-87. Cf. Gabriel Harvey, Pierce's supererogation (1593), Elizabethan critical essays, ed G. Gregory Smith (Oxford 1904) II 260: 'England, since it was England, never bred more honourable minds, more adventurous hearts, more valorous hands, or more excellent wits, than of late.' See Harry Levin, The myth of the golden age in the Renaissance (New York 1969).

31 Shelley, Adonais (1821) XLV 5-7.

32 Wallace 401, 400. Richard A. Lanham, 'Sidney: the ornament of his age', Southern Review (Adelaide) 2 (1967) 319-40, seeks to debunk the legend but all he is able to suggest is that the idealistic Sidney was not cunning enough in political matters.

33Prose 143.

34Apology for Smectymnus, Complete prose works, ed D. M. Wolfe et al. (New Haven 1953-. The Yale edn) I 890. Cf. Jonson, Preface to Volpone, Works, ed C. H. Herford, P. and E. M. Simpson (Oxford 1925-52) V 17: 'the impossibility of any man's being the good poet, without first being a good man'.

35 Scipio Gentili, Dedication to The assembly of Plato (1584); cited Thomas Zouch, Memoirs of the life and writings of Sir Philip Sidney (York 1808-9) 308. The few contemporary references are noted by William A. Ringler, jr, ed, The poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford 1962) lxi-lxii, and by John Buxton, Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance (1954) chap. 5. Especially noteworthy is Geoffrey Whitney's praise of Sidney's 'vein in verse' as Surrey's successor: 'More sweet than honey, was the style, that from his pen did flow, / Wherewith, in youth he us'd to banish idle fits; / That now, his works of endless fame delight the worthy wits. / No halting verse he writes, but matcheth former times, / No Cherillus he can abide, nor poet's patched rhymes' (A choice of emblems, Leiden 1586, 196-7). Whitney adds that Sidney refused his praise, saying that it belonged to Dyer. See Dorsten, Poets 137-8. Dorsten 62-7 adds a poem by Daniel Rogers, dated 14 January 1579, in praise of Sidney as a poet: 'when your [poetic] passion seizes our arts, then how abundant are the streams in which your wit flows forth'. See also Dorsten, 'Gruterus and Sidney's Arcadia', RES 16 (1965) 174-7.

36 His first work, The Lady of May, remained untitled until 1725. His Defence of poetry was published in 1595 in two independent editions, one entitled The defence of poesy and the other An apology for poetry. The Arcadia has appeared in three separate texts: an original version (called the Old Arcadia) in 1926, a revised but incomplete version (called the New Arcadia) in 1590, and a composite version (the New Arcadia completed by the Old) in 1593. To compound confusion, Astrophel and Stella, which appeared twice in 1591 in pirated editions, has been re-entitled Astrophil and Stella in Ringler's edition. I prefer the spelling 'Astrophel' for the sake of assonance, as I note in ELH 36 (1969) 60: for the sake of the Greek root and the play upon Philip, 'Astrophil' by itself may be allowed, as Ringler 458 argues, following Mona Wilson in her edition of the poem (London 1931, xvi-xvii); but the only spelling when coupled with Stella can be 'Astrophel'. No one can say 'Astrophil and Stella'.

37 Thomas Nashe, 'Preface to Astrophel and Stella', Works, ed R. B. McKerrow (1904-10) iii 329; Ringler 542.

38 Ringler lviii.

39Prose 186.

40 Virginia Woolf, The second common reader (New York 1932) 48. Buxton 135 writes: 'the Arcadia was probably the first literary work of any kind to be translated from English into either French or Italian. Truly Sidney had set English on the way to become one of the chief literatures of Europe.'

41 Ringler xxxvi.

42 Sir Philip Sidney, An apology for poetry, ed Geoffrey Shepherd (1965) 9.

43 Ringler li.

44 Richard B. Young, English Petrarke: a study of Sidney's 'Astrophel and Stella' (New Haven 1958); C. S. Lewis, English literature in the sixteenth century (Oxford 1954) 339; Shepherd II.

45 Shepherd II. Robert Kimbrough, Sir Philip Sidney (New York 1971) Preface, claims that 'the life of Sidney and the nature of his art must be studied together'.

46 Greville 77-8.

47Defence 89.

48Discoveries, Works VIII 595.

49 As source of the prison scene, Walter R. Davis, A map of Arcadia: Sidney's romance in its tradition (New Haven 1965) 63, cites Duplessis-Mornay's Trueness of the Christian religion (1587) 246, part of which Sidney translated: 'And therefore we ought surely to say that this mind or reason ought not to be ever in prison … as man is prepared in his mother's womb to be brought forth into the world, so is he also after a sort prepared in this body and in this world to live in another world.'

50Defence 79.

51 H. J. C. Grierson, Cross currents in English literature of the seventeenth century (1929). For the general background to the two views of man's nature, see Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the nature of man (Cambridge, Mass. 1942) and Thomas Greene, 'The flexibility of the self in Renaissance literature', The disciplines of criticism, ed Peter Demetz et al. (New Haven 1968) 241-64. G. F. Waller, ' "This matching of contraries": Bruno, Calvin and the Sidney circle', Neophilologus 56 (1972) 331-43, discusses the intellectual tension in Sidney between the Magical tradition of Bruno and the Calvinist tradition.

52 Douglas Bush, English literature in the earlier seventeenth century 1600-1660 (Oxford 1962) 37. To illustrate Bush's point briefly: when Sidney refers in the Defence to the mind 'not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her [Nature's] gifts, but freely ranging', he suggests his affinity with Pico, who urges: 'let us fly beyond the chambers of the world to the chamber nearest the most lofty divinity' (On the dignity of man, tr. C. G. Wallis, New York 1965, 7). Yet he is careful to add that man's mind ranges 'only within the zodiac of his own wit'. Similarly, when he writes that learning may 'lift up the mind from the dungeon of the body to the enjoying his own divine essence', he would seem to endorse Bruno's sonnet on the soul: 'I spread proud pinions to the wind, and contemn the world, and further my way toward heaven' (The heroic frenzies, tr. P. E. Memmo, jr, Chapel Hill 1966, 118). Yet he has already noted that man's soul is 'degenerate' and may be drawn only 'to as high a perfection' as it 'can be capable of', which may not prove very high.

53Of education, Complete prose works II 366-7.

54Tetrachordon, Complete prose works II 587.

55 Greville 35.

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

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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 poem, was well known through circulated manuscripts before it appeared posthumously in 1591 in a pirated edition by Thomas Newman and in 1598 in an edition authorized by Sidney's sister, the countess of Pem-broke, which contained 108 sonnets among which were interspersed eleven songs.1 The appreciation of Sidney's achievement over that of his predecessors is clearly announced by his first critic, Thomas Nashe, in the preface to the 1591 edition:

Tempus adest plausus aurea pompa venit, so endes the Sceane of Idiots, and enter Astrophel in pompe. Gentlemen that haue seene a thousand lines of folly, drawne forth ex vno puncto impudentiae, & two famous Mountains to goe to the conception of one Mouse, that haue had your eares deafned with the eccho of Fames brazen towres, when only they haue been toucht with a leaden pen, that haue seene Pan sitting in his bower of delights, & a number of Midasses to admire his miserable horne pipes, let not your surfeted sight, new come frō such puppet play, think scorne to turn aside into this Theater of pleasure.2

Nashe's prediction proved true, for not only did Astrophil and Stella become a quarry for pickpockets of others' wits but also its 108 sonnets became a symbol to other poets of Sidney's achievement, through which they paid him the compliment of using 108 as a structural device in their own poetry.3 Spenser's elegy for Sidney, Astrophel, to which is added the Doleful Lay of Clorinda (presumed by some to be the work of the Countess of Pembroke) contains 216 lines (2 × 108) and the Lay 108. Mute tribute is also paid by the 108 poems of the anonymous Alcilia (1595) and of Alexander Craig's Amorous Songs, Sonnets, and Elegies (1606), some of which are addressed to Lady Penelope Rich, Sidney's Stella. The 109 poems of Caelica with their numerous borrowings from Sidney may also be an acknowledgment of praise from Fulke Greville, Sidney's closest friend. Of such emulative influence there can be no question; the excellence of Sidney's wit guaranteed that, as Nashe foresaw.

What is surprising is that a story of such moral bleakness should have found such welcome from the moral Elizabethans. Again, Nashe's description is instructive, for his theater of pleasure offers

a paper stage streud with pearle, an artificial heau'n to ouershadow the faire frame, & christal wals to encounter your curious eyes, whiles the tragicommody of loue is performed by starlight. The chiefe Actor here is Melpomene, whose dusky robes dipt in the ynke of teares, as yet seeme to drop when I view them neere. The argument cruell chastitie, the Prologue hope, the Epilogue dispaire, videte queso et linguis animisque fauete.

The accuracy of Nashe's description is attested to by the fact that most later critics use it as the starting point of their own critiques of Sidney. Few critics cite the equally instructive dedication by Thomas Newman, who like Nashe appreciates Sidney's achievement in "the famous deuice of Astrophel and Stella, which carrying the generall commendation of all men of iudgement, and being reported to be one of the rarest things that euer any Englishman set abroach," but he nevertheless worries that "the Argument perhaps may seeme too light for your graue viewe" (i.e., the view of Frauncis Flower, to whom it is dedicated). Both Newman and Nashe give unqualified praise to the excellence of the poetry, but Newman's concern for the possible lightness of the argument in the grave view of Mr. Flower should alert us to the discrepancy between Sidney's excellence and his argument, a discrepancy implicit in Nashe's description. His "Theater of pleasure" is nothing more or less than a "paper stage …, an artificial heau'n to ouershadow the faire frame" in which "the tragicomedy of loue is performed by starlight…. The argument cruell chastitie, the Prologue hope, the Epilogue dispaire." Sidney's rival creation is filled with shadows and false lights and ends in the darkness of despair, facts that have not deterred modern critics from finding cause to praise Astrophil's pursuit of desire. But to the Elizabethans who firmly believed that "all the world's a stage," the pleasures of such theaters lay in their just imitation of nature to teach true morality. As Sidney himself writes in the Defense of Poetry:

that imitation whereof Poetrie is, hath the most conveniencie to nature of al other: insomuch that as Aristotle saith, those things which in themselves are horrible, as cruel battailes, unnatural monsters, are made in poeticall imitation delightful. Truly I have knowne men, that even with reading Amadis de gaule which God knoweth, wanteth much of a perfect Poesie, have found their hearts moved to the exercise of courtesie, liberalitie, and especially courage.4

Poetry teaches the lessons of morality, but we must ask then what kind of morality Astrophil's despair teaches. It teaches us about a man pursuing a married woman for whom he has conceived a passion, "Not at first sight," a man who steals a kiss from her while she is asleep, worrying all the while about her anger and later chiding himself for not being more adventurous (Song II), a man who frankly propositions her despite her gentle, "No, no, no, no, my dear, let be" (Song IV), and then churlishly vilifies her because she has not given in (Song V), a man who once more tries rather gawkily to seduce her (Song VIII), is again repulsed and retires into pastoral exile (Song IX), only too soon to be found under her window still refusing to accept her refusal until she sends him packing (Song XI) to the despair of the final sonnets. In a theater this would be viewed as morally reprehensible behavior in spite of the fact that the majority of modern critics feel a necessity to praise Astrophil's actions because he is, after all, driven by love. The poetic success of Astrophil's failure to win Stella has captivated these critics into believing that we should follow his lamentations and praise of Stella with total sympathy for his endeavors. These lenient modern assessments of Astrophil, it seems to me, miss the point of Sidney's poem. I think that Sidney wanted us to be delighted by Astrophil's wit and to be instructed by the image of a man whose reason gives way to his will and whose hopeful desires finally lead him into despair.5 Astrophil is not a hero, and he is not a hero precisely because he succumbs to wholeheartedly to the pursuit of his desires. He teaches morality by negative example. The vacancy at the heart of Sidney's poem proclaims in chorus with all the other English sequences: Go, and do not likewise.

The most explicit statement of the virtues of negative example is the advice of the anonymous "gentleman friend" Philaretes to the author of Alcilia:

In perusing your Loving Folly, and your Declining from it; I do behold Reason conquering Passion. The infirmity of loving argueth you are a man; the firmness thereof, discovereth a good wit and the best nature: and the falling from it, true virtue. Beauty was always of force to mislead the wisest; and men of greatest perfection have had no power to resist Love. The best are accompanied with vices, to exercise their virtues; whose glory shineth brightest in resisting motives of pleasure, and in subduing affections…. Yet herein it appeareth you have made good use of Reason; that being heretofore lost in youthful vanity, have now, by timely discretion, found yourself!

Let me entreat you to suffer these your Passionate Sonnets to be published! which may, peradventure, make others, possessed with the like Humour of Loving, to follow your example, in leaving; and move other Alcilias (if there be any) to embrace deserving love, while they may.6

Interpreting the sonnets as negative example makes sense of Newman's hesitation about the lightness of Sidney's argument and places Nashe's description in a context that shows that accurate description does not necessarily imply approbation or praise. The "paper stage" betrays the lack of a firmer foundation; the "artificial heau'n" does "ouershadow the faire frame" of God's intended creation; the "tragicomedy of loue is performed by starlight" only for lack of better light. The argument is "cruel! chastitie" only because that chastity will not respond to Astrophil's desires. Sidney, as I hope to prove, is using Astrophil's journey from hope to despair as a fictional device for the analysis of human desire in Christian terms.

Most commentators on Sidney find an irresistible impulse to draw into Astrophil and Stella the final two sonnets of Certain Sonnets, "Thou blindman's mark" and "Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust."7 The impulse is entirely understandable not only because those two sonnets analyze the inadequacies of human desire within a context that accounts for the inadequacy but also because the ending of Astrophil and Stella, if read as a justification or glorification of Astrophil's actions, is grievously inconclusive and uninstructive. Those two explicitly Christian poems cry out to be included unless one sees that beneath the witty surface of Astrophil's lamentations and selfish demands lies the old battle of the "erected wit" and the "infected will" that as Sidney assures us in the Defense of Poetry continues to deprive us of the golden world that was once ours by right. Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to include those two poems in the sequence. They show a repentance and a knowledge of desire that Astrophil never achieves. The brilliance of Sidney's negative example is that he realized that Astrophil must end in despair because he never learns from his experience. We the readers are meant to supply the Christian context that will make sense of the insufficiencies of Astrophil's insights into his predicament.

The title itself should give us some hint of the disjunction that is Sidney's subject: Astrophil and Stella, Most sonnet sequences, if titled, use only the name of the lady, the presumed subject and object of the poetry. Sidney uses a copulative title, one part derived from Greek and one from Latin, announcing even before we start to read a disjunction, minor but perhaps significant. Even disallowing the etymological disjunction, inspection reveals a disunity in the title, a doubleness, a duplicity. Two names are joined by a grammatical copula, which we accept out of hand as a unity, which it will not become. We are so used to accepting the unity of a Romeo and Juliet that we forget that the true coupling is the full title: The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Misfortune and not love is their final union, and that is the reason we still read their story. Astrophil and Stella are separate from the moment the title is read, and if we stop to think even for a moment about the title, what possible union is there for a star-lover and a star? Petrarch makes his Laura into a false sun; Scève creates a false moon (Délie), but neither one uses as the major name of his loved one a name from another order of nature. I do not know how common the name Stella was for women in the sixteenth century, but surely Sidney is indicating in his choice of names a being of a different order, distant, unattainable, and reflected, a light that does not illuminate, that leaves us in the dark, a light that is shared and shown by thousands of other Stellas, which goes far to dispute the uniqueness of Astrophil's claims for his Stella.

The ambiguity of the title is carefully demonstrated inthe sequence. The tragicomedy of love performed by starlight is inadequately lighted. Stella's eyes, "nature's chiefest work," are black, "that sweete blacke which vailes the heav'nly eye" (sonnet 20). Astrophil's starlit stage is dark and perilous. His theatre is of the mind "that sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe" (sonnet 1). The face can be none other than his own face, his own rejected desires. Astrophil, in calling for "some fresh and fruitfull showers upon my sunne-burn'd braine" (sonnet 1), is sounding a retreat from the light of common day, a retreat that will engulf him in the blackness of his own mind as figured by the blackness of Stella's eyes. Who ever heard of black stars before the discovery of black holes?8

The metaphor of blackness expands under Astrophil's preoccupations. He reaches out to the common sunlit world he has rejected to find the metaphors to describe the blackness he now recognizes as his world:

His painting of the scenery of his starlit world draws upon the common Christian opposition of heaven and hell, but no lover has ever thought that a denial of what he considers heaven is anything else but a hell. By sonnet 86 he has transferred the responsibility for his fate to Stella:

Astrophil at this point is playing a more skillfully feeling game in drawing in other common words from Christian eschatology. "Doome" carries a heavy overtone of Christian damnation, of judgment against the speaker, but in point of fact, the "doome" is nothing more than Stella's judgment of his love suit, which has turned his heaven into his hell. Astrophil has inverted every image he uses. Black has replaced light. Heaven is Stella's submission to him; Hell is her refusal of her grace. Astrophil exploits every ambiguity of common Christian imagery to paint his own case in the most salutary light, which he calls in sonnet 1 "the blackest face of woe." In every way he uses spiritual meanings for physical ends:

So while thy beautie drawes the heart to love,

As fast thy Vertue bends that love to good:
'But ah,' Desire still cries, 'give me some food.'
(Sonnet 71)

These lines are the mid-lines of the entire sequence, a point to which I shall return in the last section of this essay. At this point we need only say that Astrophil is painting most skillfully but only feelingly, that is, selfishly.

This simple technique of inversion is evident even in the light imagery used to describe Stella. The single star that Stella's name implies becomes by sonnet 7 two black stars, her eyes, which Astrophil would have us believe to be Nature's "chiefe worke." By sonnet 68 Stella has become "the onely Planet of my light, / Light of my life, and life of my desire," and by sonnet 76 his star has been metamorphosed into his sun: "But now appeares my day, / The onely light of joy, the onely warmth of Love." By the end of the sequence his sun is only memory because of Stella's absence from him (sonnets 88, 89, 91, 96, 97, 98).

The imagery of light associated with Stella's eyes is, to say the least, contradictory: "When Sun is hid, can starres such beames display?" (sonnet 88). The contradiction is intended by Sidney to alert us to the confusion of Astrophil's apprehension, climaxed most explicitly in sonnet 89, the only sonnet in the sequence to employ just two rhymes:

Every possible inversion of day and night is wrung out of this infernal litany of the lover's despair. The literary sources of this inversion of day and night is Vergil, Aeneid, 4.522-32 and more directly Petrarch's Canzoniere 22, but Sidney complicates the issue by having Astrophil confuse both inner and outer day and night. They have become all one to him, and from this point on the sequence is shrouded in darkness both physical and moral.

The permutations of Stella's light-giving qualities in these later sonnets is anticipated in an earlier block of poems (31-40), which also describe the lover's night world. Sonnet 32, the central sonnet of the first unbroken block of sonnets (1-63), about which I shall speak later, is an invocation to Morpheus, which will require some elucidation because of its importance to Astrophil's predicament. Morpheus, the son of Somnus, god of sleep, is most elaborately described in Ovid's story of Ceyx and Alcyon (Metamorphoses, 11.591 ff.). He is the god who appears to dreamers in human shape, and it is he who appears to the grieving Ceyx to inform her of her husband's death. Ovid describes him:

At pater e populo natorum mille suorum
excitat artificem simulatoremque figurae
Morphea: non illo quisquam sollertius alter
exprimit incessus vultumque sonumque loquendi;
adicit et vestes et consuetissima cuique verba.

[But the father rouses Morpheus from the throng of his thousand sons, a cunning imitator of the human form. No other is more skilled than he is representing the gait, the features, and the speech of men, the clothing also and the accustomed words of each he represents.]11

Ovid emphasizes the artifice of the verisimilitude. sidney undoubtedly knew the Ovidian story because he imitates lines 623-26 in sonnet 39, but he would also have known Chaucer's use of Ovid's story in TheBook of the Duchess where the ambivalence of this beneficent dissimulator is more apparent. We should also recall that Spenser has Archimago send to the house of Morpheus to fetch him evil spirits to deceive Una and Red Crosse (FQ I.ii.36-44). Thus, an invocation to Morpheus should not be read as a simple request for sleep:

Morpheus' power over Astrophil is that he is the bringer of Stella's image, but it should be observed that even Astrophil is aware of the artifice. I am not so sure that Astrophil is aware of the double edge of those "blind eyes" or of the earlier "Witnesse of life to them that living die." Sidney's invocation of Morpheus introduces a note of the hellish nature of Astrophil's infatuation. He has closed out every consideration of the waking world. In sonnet 30 he enumerates the great political problems of his time and concludes:

In sonnet 31 he projects his wretched plight onto the moon ("With how sad steps, o Moone, thou climb'st the skies") before succumbing to the blandishments of Morpheus in the sonnet under discussion. Astrophil is busy enclosing himself in the night of his own desires under the dubious patronage of Morpheus.

The complex of metaphors I have been describing derives ultimately from a common Christian metaphor, most forcefully stated in Romans 13. 10-14 (Geneva version):

Loue doeth not euil to his neighbour: therefore is loue ye fulfilling of the law.

And that considering the season, that it is now time that we shulde arise from slepe: for now is our saluation nerer, then when we beleued it.

The night is past, & the day is at hand: let vs therefore cast away the workes of darkenes, and let vs put on the armour of light,

So that we walke honestly, as in the day: not in glotonie, and dronkennes, neither in chambering and wantonnes, nor in strife and enuying.

Paul's injunction to put on the new man of spirituality and to put away the old man of bondage to sin, couched here in metaphors of light and dark, sleep and waking, is picked up again in 1 Thessalonians 5.5-6: "Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night neither of darknes. Therefore let vs not slepe as do other, but let vs watch and be sober." The Genevan gloss to these lines is instructive: "Here slepe is taken for contempt of saluation, when men continewe in sinnes, and wil not awake to godlinesse." "Watch" is glossed: "And not be ouercome with the cares of the world." Astrophil's concerns throughout the sequence lock him up in his "sleep of the senses" and prevent his seeing that worship of the idol he himself has created has imprisoned him in his hellish night. Sidney's brilliant inversion of traditional imagery cries out for the Christian context, which finally does give meaning to Astrophil's negative example of what a lover should be.


1 The 1591 edition, first quarto, contains 107 sonnets (37, the sonnet punning on Lord Rich's name, omitted) and ten songs (XI omitted). The order of the poems is different in that 55 and 56 are reversed, and the ten songs appear as a block at the end of the sonnets. The many verbal differences are cited in William A. Ringler, Jr., ed., The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), to which edition all further citations of the poems are made. Ringler's excellent discussion of the textual history of the poems is on pp. 447-57.

2 Thomas Nashe, preface to Syr P. S. His Astrophel and Stella (1591; rpt. Menston-Scolar Press, 1970), Sig A.3.

3 Alastair Fowler, Triumphal Forms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 175-76….

4The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912-1926), vol. 3, p. 20.

5 For example, Leonora Leet Brodwin, "The Structure of 'Astrophel and Stella,'" MP 67 (1969), 25-40, in a very perceptive study leaves Astrophil in a thoroughly untenable situation: "In the first section [1-35], Astrophel sought a virtuous resolution of the conflict between ideal reason and desire caused by a love which had no hope of reciprocation. In the second section [36-86], Astrophel's internal struggle is displaced by the 'new warre' of external struggle with Stella following upon her unexpected show of favor to him. This wrecks the virtuous resolution toward which he had struggled so painfully in the first section and leaves him in the third section [87-108], with no moral armor against the unrelieved despair caused by Stella's final rejection of his love" (p. 27, emphasis added). I do not accept the virtue of Astrophil's dilemma. With Anne Romayne Howe, "Astrophil and Stella: Why and How?" SP 61 (1964), 150-69, I can recognize much poetic talent in Astrophil but no virtue. I do not want to restructure the sequence as she would, nor do I want to divide the persona of Astrophil into pure and impure persuasion as does Richard A. Lanham, "Astrophil and Stella: Pure and Impure Persuasion," ELR 2 (1972), 100-15. James J. Scanlon, "Sidney's Astrophil and Stella: 'See what it is to love' Sensually!" SEL 16 (1976), 65-74, is closer to the points I want to make, but I would like to trace Sidney's use of sonnet themes back to pre-Bembo sources, since Neoplatonism tends to becloud the basic Christian issues at stake. A reading closer to mine is Alan Sinfield, "Astrophil's Self-Deception," EIC 28 (1978), 3-17.

6Some Longer Elizabethan Poems, ed. A. H. Bullen (Westminster: Archibald Constable, 1903), pp. 321-22. Alexander Craig, another follower of Sidney, makes the same point: "So haue I in middest of my modest Affections, committed to the Presse my vnchast Loue to Lais, that contraries by contraries, and Vertue by Vice, more cleerely may shine " ("To the Reader," Amorose Songes, Sonets, and Elegies [1606], Glasgow: Hunterian Club Publications, No. 5 [1873], p. 11). The basic critical issue is whether one achieves the moral purpose of literature by writing strict doctrine or by slyly using ironic techniques while implying the opposite. The most ancient and common version of the issue is whether Ovid was a lewd or a moral poet. In recent scholarship the problem has been debated on the meaning of Andreas Capellanus's De amore. See D. W. Robertson, Jr., "The Subject of the De amore of Andreas Capellanus," MP 50 (1953), 145-61. An interesting example of the problem, roughly contemporaneous with Sidney, is Robert Greene's Vision in which the supposedly dying author reflects on his own literary practice and has both Chaucer and Gower tell a tale on how to drive out jealousy, Chaucer taking the ironic, witty route and Gower taking the straightforward moral route. Greene describes the business of the true writer not "in painting out a goddesse, but in setting out the praises of God; not in discovering of beauty, but in discovering of virtues, not in laying out the platforms of love, nor in telling the deep passions of fancy, but in perswading men to honest and honorable actions, which are the steps that lead to true and perfect felicity." (Life and Works of Robert Greene, MA, ed. A. B. Grosart, 15 vols. [1881-1886], vol. 12, p. 189). The further irony of Greene, very lively, writing about his death and repentance, deserves further study.

7 For example, see David Kalstone, Sidney's Poetry, Contexts and Interpretations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 178.

8 For a different interpretation of the star imagery, see Ruth Stevenson, "The Influence of Astrophil's Star," TSL 17 (1972), 45-57….

10 The phrase "daily unbidden guest" seems to me to foreshadow Milton's "worthy bidden guest" of Lycidas 118, derived from Matthew 22:8: "Truely the wedding is prepared but they which were bidden were not worthie."

11 Text and translation from Loeb edition, ed. and trans. Frank Justus Miller….

David Norbrook (essay date 1984)

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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 poetry.1 Sidney had helped to introduce the new courtly forms of pastoral to England. He was well acquainted with Sannazaro's Arcadia and admired the Italian poet's gift of verbal harmony and courtly metrical virtuosity and purity of diction.2 In 1578 or 1579 he wrote a pastoral entertainment, The Lady of May, which helped to inaugurate the cult of Elizabeth as a pastoral goddess. The relative merits of the May Lady's two suitors, a shepherd and a forester, were debated and at the end Elizabeth was praised as the true Lady of May. Sidney became so closely associated with pastoral verse that after his death in 1586 one elegist, George Whetstone, assumed that he had written The Shepheardes Calender, which had appeared anonymously.3 In his Defence of Poetry Sidney had praised Spenser's eclogues but he had also found fault with them for being insufficiently courtly: he disliked Spenser's use of the old rugged pastoral diction, and his own pastoral verse is much more polished and courtly in metre and diction than Spenser's poetry.4 Sidney was very conscious of his kinship with some prominent noble families and would have regarded it as beneath him to put his poetry on public sale as Spenser had done. Sidney is a courtier rather than a prophet.

Sidney's major pastoral work, the Arcadia, borrows its title from Sannazaro and has much in common with the atmosphere of Italian courtly pastoral. Sidney tells how two heroic princes, Musidorus and Pyrocles, arrive in Arcadia in disguise and fall in love with Pamela and Philoclea, the daughters of Duke Basilius. The princes have to disguise themselves to woo the princesses, for their father, trying to escape the effects of a threatening oracle, has retired to the country and put aside official business. Basilius delights in this abandonment of the active for the contemplative life, and takes pleasure in the joys of the countryside and in particular in pastoral entertainments. Monarchy, we are told, benefits the arts: nothing lifted up the shepherds' poetry 'to so high a key as the presence of their own duke'.5 Between the books or acts of the Old Arcadia there are singing-contests which provide Sidney with an opportunity of displaying his own virtuosity as a poet. The leisure of Arcadia permits a high degree of metrical and stylistic experimentation, and most of the Arcadian poems adopt complex verse forms.

Sidney emphasises the link between social rank and poetic skill: the very shepherds of Arcadia are socially superior to their counterparts elsewhere, but when they engage in singing contests with the princes they are outdone. Thus in the 'first eclogues' (pp. 58-64) the shepherd Lalus challenges Musidorus to sing of his loved one, initiating the contest in a very difficult verse form ('terza rima' with triple rhymes); Musidorus effortlessly meets every metrical challenge Lalus sets him while at the same time producing a more complex and intellectual kind of poetry, abstract and philosophical where Lalus's language is concrete and rustic. The whole exercise reveals Sidney's mastery of Italian verse forms, which he uses with an ease and grace that no previous English poet had achieved.6 Sidney also experiments with imitations of classical metres. Humanists throughout Europe had made similar experiments, the product not of mere pedantry but of the belief that the ancient Greeks had achieved a uniquely harmonious balance between words and music in their lyric poetry, and that if poetry imitating classical metres were set to the new 'monodic' music it might be possible to regain this powerful and quasimagical harmony.7 In the Arcadia these experiments are given to the princes alone: they require an erudition beyond the abilities of the vulgar.

The Old Arcadia describes an aristocratic society in which love is the main preoccupation and in which contemplation is valued more than action. This is the kind of society celebrated by Castiglione and other defenders of court life. The state has become a work of art: strife and disagreement have been banished and the monarch's presence instils harmony. But having aroused certain expectations by the title Arcadia and the courtly atmosphere, Sidney proceeds to subvert them. It appears that the duke's attempt to turn his life into a work of art is precisely the problem: by delighting in pastoral poetry in the charmed seclusion of his rural retreat he has neglected more important political issues. Sidney has produced a critique of irresponsible absolutism by means of a critique of courtly poetic forms. The reader of courtly romance would normally expect a relaxed, associative structure without clear formal principles; the Old Arcadia is a masterpiece of controlled plotting. The pastoral interludes are enclosed within a main plot that is tightly and ingeniously constructed on the model of classical drama rather than the rambling romances in which so many aristocratic readers delighted. Sidney was one of the first English writers to have made a careful study of Aristotle's Poetics, which had been rediscovered only in the late fifteenth century but was already becoming extremely influential in Italy as the basis of neoclassical poetics. In its later developments neoclassicism became an intellectually authoritarian movement, binding the writer's freedom with rigid rules and prescriptions; and it is often regarded as having authoritarian political implications. It is true that the dominance of neoclassical theory in Italy and France coincided with periods of political absolutism.8 Italian neoclassical drama tended to combine rigid formal unity with relatively bland and courtly subject-matter. But Sidney was aware of more radical currents in classical studies. One of the few contemporary writers he singled out for commendation in The Defence of Poetry was the Scottish poet George Buchanan, whose Neo-Latin plays reflected his radical views. Bale had praised him as a Protestant martyr in his Summarium but in fact he had escaped to the Continent and had returned to Scotland in the 1560s.9 In 1567 he had supported the Protestant coup d'état that overthrew Mary Stuart, and had written a theoretical justification of the episode in his treatise 'De jure regni'. Sidney and his circle were interested in Buchanan as much for his politics as for his poetry: at the height of the crisis over the French match Sidney's friend Daniel Rogers arranged to have the 'De jure regni' surreptitiously printed in England, and he also encouraged him to complete his History of Scotland which was a vindication of the people's right to overthrow tyrants. Another friend of Sidney's10 arranged the English publication of Buchanan's Baptistes, a play which portrayed the grim fate reserved for the prophet who dared to speak truths that went against the interests of the establishment: in 1643 the House of Commons ordered a translation of this work as part of the campaign to justify their rebellion."11 Like many Protestant intellectuals, Buchanan wavered in his attitude to the people. Truth had sometimes been preserved amongst the common people when the established church had been irredeemably corrupt, but on the other hand the masses were more likely than the educated to believe in superstitions and to resist new ideas. 'For the most part', he complained, 'the people like to stick to old ways and customs, and are opposed to change.'12 They preferred fantastic plays which portrayed impossibly idealised princes to neoclassical drama in much the same way that they preferred religious rituals and processions to the pure word of God. But the drama Buchanan most loved, that of classical Greece, had been produced in a democracy. He had translated some plays of Euripides—whose critical, rationalistic outlook was to make him Milton's favourite dramatist. Sidney may have been working on the Defence of Poetry during the controversy over the French match, and he may have been thinking of Buchanan's plays when he wrote that tragedy 'makes kings fear to be tyrants'.13 Sidney defended poetry on fundamentally didactic grounds, arguing that it was superior to philosophy and history in moving people to action. His type of the pedantic enemy to poetry was not the Puritan—he shared the puritans' hostility to the French match, and indeed to much popular theatre—but the philosopher; he was reviving the old quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric.

There is, however, a certain tension in the Defence between humanist didacticism and a rather more courtly view of poetry. Sidney's conception of the poem as a 'golden world', more richly adorned than anything to be found in nature, recalls the increasing escapism of sixteenth-century Italian court culture, the search for ideal aristocratic utopias which would transcend political crisis.14 But Sidney's argument is not just that the 'golden world' is more beautiful than the natural world but also that, as Aristotle had put it, poetry is more philosophical than history because less dependent on contingent facts. The poetic world is a model whose very autonomy, its freedom from subjection to empirical fact, allows a detachment from traditional ideas and the free exploration of alternatives. The detached and critical cast of mind that enabled Sidney to conceive of the work of art as a 'world' was the same kind of capacity that produced the concept of the 'commonwealth' as a complex entity independent of the person of the ruler. In the Defence Sidney draws a distinction between different kinds of poetic idealisation. Some writers, like Xenophon and Virgil, create a portrait of the ideal prince (a genre which was, of course, especially popular with courtiers). But, Sidney continues, it is also possible to feign 'a whole commonwealth, as the way of Sir Thomas More's Utopia".15 In praising not the communist ideas but the 'way' of the Utopia Sidney was presumably referring to More's ability to see all the evils of society as closely interrelated rather than remaining content with moral denunciations of particular 'abuses'. In the Arcadia Sidney presents not just an idealised prince but a whole commonwealth. At first the focus seems to be limited, as is customary in courtly romance, to the prince and his followers. But when a group of rebels unexpectedly storm his retreat Basilius is made to remember that a commonwealth is made up of more people than just the prince, that his personal well-being is not necessarily identical with the wellbeing of his subjects. Towards the end of the work the neighbouring monarch Euarchus arrives to remind Basilius of the need to join a Grecian alliance against the Roman threat: this episode recalls the Leicester circle's frustration at the queen's reluctance to join an anti-Habsburg alliance. Basilius's retreat is a sign of effeminacy, a fact symbolised by his falling in love with Pyrocles in his female disguise. The Leicester circle felt that Elizabeth lacked the firm decisiveness that might have been shown by a male ruler. Sidney hints that a monarchy may not necessarily be the best form of government for consulting the interests of all: under Basilius's rule 'public matters had ever been privately governed', and we are told that this is 'a notable example how great dissipations monarchal governments are subject unto' (p. 320). Sidney's 'feigned commonwealth' of Arcadia is not just a timeless idyll but a state with a complex economy and social structure. Sidney takes considerable pains to give historical verisimilitude to the setting in classical Greece: his feigned commonwealth must be made politically accurate. Sidney has politicised Italian courtly romance, enclosing it within a carefully organised humanist framework.16

The princes as well as Basilius have allowed private interests to interfere with public responsibilities. On their way to visit Pyrocles's father Euarchus, they are so enchanted by the princesses' beauty that they resolve to adopt disguises in order to enter their presence. Because they are disguised, not only does Euarchus worry about their fate but their friend Plangus, who is searching for them to tell them that the virtuous queen Erona is in danger and needs their help, is unable to find them. His despairing story is told during the first eclogues, and a bitter lament by him is sung in the second eclogues. The princes decide that they have time enough to save Erona, but this sub-plot darkens the work's atmosphere. Their own poems, in which they declare their love to the princesses, give a sense of confinement, almost claustrophobia: they are forced to disguise their identities and cannot speak their passion openly. Their attempt to win the princesses without their father's consent leads to political chaos: they abduct the princesses, while Basilius, in love with Pyrocles, and Gynecia, in love with Musidorus, engage in a series of devious manoeuvres which end in the duke's drinking a sleeping-potion and being feared dead. The princes are put on trial for abducting and raping the princesses and for murdering Basilius. Though they adopt their best courtly garb to gain the crowd's sympathy, the laws of Arcadia strongly reject the aristocratic double standard of sexual conduct and Euarchus, who has arrived in search of the princes and has been appointed regent, decides that the laws must sentence them to cruel deaths. Only a twist of the plot, the belated revival of the duke who has not after all been poisoned, saves the princes from their fate. Basilius arbitrarily sets aside the laws which condemned them, for though they have been innocent of trying to murder him the law still prescribes death for seducing and kidnapping princesses.

The Old Arcadia thus subverts the expectations aroused by its title and subjects the Italian courtly ideals of retirement, contemplation and love, to severe Protestant humanist scrutiny. It reflects the ambivalence with which the Leicester circle viewed Italian culture. In the Defence of Poetry Sidney argued that English literature was underdeveloped, that it had not yet acquired the rhetorical skill of classical literature, and his poetic practice shows that he felt he had nothing to learn from the mid-century 'gospelling' poets or indeed from much previous English poetry. He found the best models in Romance languages amongst the Italians. But Sidney always judged cultural issues in their political context, and he did not admire current tendencies in Italian politics. Greville was speaking for the Leicester circle when he later declared that Italy's 'excellent temper of spirits, earth, and aire' had 'long been smothered and mowed down by the differing Tyrannies of Spain, and Rome'17 Languet warned Sidney that the Italians' 'spirits are broken by long servitude', and that 'nothing is more harmful to the intellects of free men' than the 'arts' of courtly flattery, 'which soften their manly virtue and prepare their spirits for servility'.18 On Languet's advice Sidney confined his visit to Italy to Venice, a republic that jealously defended its political traditions. He admired Contarini's description of the laws of Venice, which was to become a key text for seventeenth-century republicans, and advised his brother Robert to study the Venetian constitution. He considered all other Italian regimes to be too servile and oligarchical.19 The Old Arcadia reflects the radical humanist's suspicion of the aestheticisation of politics, of the tendency of princes to compensate their subjects for the loss of liberty by spectacles and courtly festivities. Sidney certainly did not think of Elizabeth as a tyrant, and he wrote a pastoral masque for her himself. But The Lady of May is relatively muted in its praise of the queen. Sidney may have intended the queen to favour the forester, whose active life would contrast with the pacific and contemplative existence of the shepherd and might be taken to symbolise the more active foreign policy favoured by the Leicester circle. This allegorical interpretation is debatable; what is notable, however, is that both forester and shepherd criticise the life of the court with its 'servile flattery' and futile wooing of an evasive royal mistress. The only poem Sidney wrote in praise of Queen Elizabeth, which prefaces the masque, declares that 'your face hurts oft' even though 'still it doth delight'.20 Like The Lady of May, the Old Arcadia combines courtly pastoral with a detached and critical view of monarchy.

At one point, indeed, Sidney abandons the newer, Italianate pastoral idiom and writes an eclogue under the traditional rugged persona of the plain-speaking, anticourtly shepherd. Between the third and the fourth books, at a crucial point in the work's structure, Sidney includes a long beast fable. The poem is a classic exposition of the radical Protestant fear of the growing power of absolute rulers. It tells how at one time the beasts were represented by a few aristocratic senators, but the baser beasts stupidly made suit to Jove:

With neighing, bleing, braying, and barking,
Roaring, and howling, for to have a king.

Jove warns them that kings will become tyrants, but the beasts are obdurate and even yield up their right to freedom of speech in their eagerness to be ruled by a monarch. The new king—Man in the allegory—begins his reign by provoking dissension in the aristocracy and wiping them out. At first the people are delighted to have lost their noble oppressors, but they learn by bitter experience that the aristocracy at least acted as a buffer between themselves and the tyrant, who now proceeds to enslave them. The people are urged, ominously if vaguely, to 'know your strengths' (p. 259). Significantly, this is the one part of the Arcadia where Sidney reverts to the self-consciously archaic diction of mid-century prophetic poetry. The reciter of the poem, 'Philisides', explains that he learned it from a shepherd on Ister Bank: this is a reference to Hubert Languet, the Huguenot intellectual who was Sidney's lifelong mentor and correspondent. Languet was closely involved with international Protestant politics: he helped to draft the Apology with which William of Orange justified his rebellion against Philip II. Languet's friend Philippe Duplessis-Mornay was probably the author of one of the most eloquent Huguenot justifications of resistance against tyranny, the Vindiciae contra tyrannos. The sixteenth-century theorists of resistance were not democrats: they argued that only men of rank and property had the right to resist tyranny, otherwise there would be social chaos. Sidney's Ister Bank eclogue reflects the view of these aristocratic radicals that only a strong nobility could safeguard liberty. It is possible to trace a clear line of succession, both in intellectual and familial kinship, from Sidney and his circle down to the classical republicans of the Commonwealth in the 1650s—down to Sir Philip's greatnephew Algernon Sidney.21

There can be little doubt that Sidney's close contacts with radical political thinkers contributed to the queen's suspicion of her young nephew. Despite his image as the ideal courtier, Sidney was not on particularly good terms with Elizabeth, who was reluctant to entrust him with important diplomatic or military duties. Even the knighthood by which he is known to posterity was conferred on him only late in his short life to enable him to carry out a minor diplomatic ceremony. The queen knew that on the Continent Sidney was regarded as an important political figure because of his family connections with the Earl of Leicester: it was not inconceivable that he might become a candidate for the throne. Negotiations began at one time for a marriage between Sidney and the sister of William of Orange: this project, if followed through, would have brought him to the centre of European Protestant politics. Elizabeth did not want this brilliant young man to have ideas above his station. The fact that he was in contact with foreign radicals does not, of course, mean that he endorsed all their ideas. He would probably have agreed with Harvey that because he was living in Smith's commonwealth rather than More's Utopia he had to adjust himself to political realities. What concerned him was to make sure that the monarchy did not step beyond the bounds traditionally allotted to it.22

Sidney's political caution was intensified by an element of social fear. His generation had been deeply affected by the upheavals of 1549: Leicester as a young man had ridden with his father the Protector to crush the revels. Aristocratic privilege was liable to threats from below as well as from above. Sidney completely lacks the interest of earlier generations in the social problems caused by economic changes such as enclosures: the Arcadia itself was, according to legend, written in a park which had been made by enclosing a whole village and evicting the tenants, and where Sidney could enjoy leisure and contemplation.23 Many members of Leicester's circle were essentially nouveaux riches, despite the archaising feudal costumes they wore at court tournaments. Sir Henry Lee, who aided Leicester in devising entertainments for the queen and appeared as the Queen's champion in Accession Day tilts, 'belonged to the new school of landowners, for whom landowning was a business'.24 A great sheepfarmer, he owed much of his wealth to enclosures. His relations with his tenants were not particularly paternalistic. He gained a licence from the queen to make the many serfs remaining on his lands pay large sums to buy their liberty: if they refused he had the right to seize their lands.25 His activities as a landlord helped to provoke an uprising in Oxfordshire in 1596. Sidney was acutely conscious that members of old landed families looked down on his own more modest ancestry. The Earl of Oxford, a Catholic supporter of the French match, engaged in an extremely public quarrel with Sidney in 1579 in which he cast scorn on his lowly origins. To Oxford Sidney was an upstart with dangerous political ideas; his antagonist responded by stiffly insisting on his own and Leicester's good breeding. Hence his insistence on the immense gulf between himself and Spenser the professional poet—the distance was not quite as great as he might have liked.

Sidney's aristocratic consciousness thus affects his political outlook in complex ways: if it makes him sympathise with noble rebels against tyrannous monarchs, it also instils considerable social caution. This caution tempers his severe judgment of the princes for their neglect of their duty. Some critics have argued that Sidney means the princes to be found wanting by a rigorous Calvinist standard of morality, that the Arcadia is, in the sexual sense, a puritan work.26 There is certainly a tension in the Old Arcadia between sensualism and morality. The reader is constantly put in the position of princes as they watch with relish an attractive female body: Philoclea's garment, says the appreciative narrator, was light enough 'to have made a very restrained imagination have thought what was under it' (p. 37). But having aroused such imaginations, Sidney seems to quell them at the end by showing the disastrous consequences of the princes' self-indulgence. Though Sidney later revised the Old Arcadia to mitigate their guilt in abducting the princesses, in the original version they are undoubtedly guilty of this offence and the sentence of death is, though harsh, definitely legal. By the standards of the conduct of the heroes in many sixteenth-century romances, however, their behaviour has not been particularly heinous.27 The aristocratic 'double standard' tolerated strong sexuality in young noblemen if not young women: in Astrophel and Stella Sidney enters sympathetically into the predicament of a courtier who wants to seduce a married lady.

Why, then, did Sidney submit his heroes to such rigorous judgments? The trial scene indicates the keen interest of Sidney and his circle in legal issues: in composing the prosecution and defence speeches Sidney draws heavily on Cicero's account of legal rhetoric in 'De Inventione'. The relationship of the law to sexual morality was in fact being debated in the 1570s: the Puritans were campaigning for stricter laws against sexual misconduct, drawing their precedents not only from the Old Testament but also from the laws of Greece and Rome. The Puritans did not go so far as the Arcadians in wanting to punish fornication by death, but they did want the death penalty for adultery. Such rigour was not easily compatible, however, with the traditionally more indulgent aristocratic attitude to sexual misconduct. In 1593 a proposal to have men as well as women whipped for adultery was rejected 'for fear, the penalty might chance upon gentlemen or men of quality'.28 Pyrocles asks Philanax not to be too 'precise' in his judgment (p. 267): the word 'precise' was often applied to Puritans, and the topical controversy may have influenced Sidney's presentation of the issues. Shakespeare was to explore similar questions in his presentation of 'the precise Angelo' in Measure for Measure.29 Like Shakespeare, Sidney dramatises a conflict between law and equity. Euarchus is renowned for his equity, but he announces at the outset that he will set aside all considerations other than the letter of the law of Arcadia. He does this because only the prince is empowered to dispense equity, and as a mere outsider called in by the Arcadians to exercise judgment he is extremely anxious not to do anything that might imply that he wants to usurp the ducal authority. Sixteenth-century legal theory indeed normally associated equity with the monarch, who was empowered in special cases to overrule the letter of the law. In England, equity was especially associated with prerogative courts like the Star Chamber.30 More generally, equity was associated by political theorists with aristocratic societies which were governed by distributive rather than commutative justice: in democracies the narrow letter of the law prevailed and all citizens were treated alike irrespective of circumstances, while in an aristocracy or monarchy there was more latitude for equity. Sidney clearly expects his readers to feel the injustice of treating noble and magnanimous princes in the same way as anyone else: where Puritanism seems to have democratic tendencies, he fears it. And what resolves the conflict is the revival of the duke, who alone is able to dispense equity and to pardon the princes. But many critics have found this ending unsatisfactorily perfunctory: the pardoning seems to partake more of 'blatant favouritism' than of equity.31 Sidney tried to remedy this defect in revision, but it is an interesting index of the social and political tensions that affected his writing.

Without the monarch, the status of the nobility would be threatened. The plot of the Arcadia ultimately points this moral. The harmony of the landscape can be disturbed without warning by an armed uprising, the country houses that adorn the Arcadian countryside abruptly become islands in a 'violent flood' of rebellious 'clowns' carried 'they themselves knew not whither' (123). The social focus in Sidney's 'feigned commonwealth' is much narrower than in More's. Sidney does not view the social order as a naturally harmonious, organically ordered body but as a precarious union of warring elements: once the duke has withdrawn from political life the state becomes 'like a falling steeple, the parts whereof … were well, but the whole mass ruinous' (p. 320). In the revised Arcadia Sidney expands on the social motives of the rebels in order to show how contradictory they are: the peasants 'would have the Gentlemen destroied', the citizens 'would but have them refourmed', while the richer burgesses look down on both groups.32 The Leicester circle had supported the Dutch rebels against Philip II, but William of Orange had been careful to emphasise that this was a rebellion with strong feudal precedents and with aristocratic leaders. When he took command in the Netherlands Leicester sided strongly with the Calvinist party because the more liberal Protestant party was led by mere merchants. He recommended that33

only the nobility of the land or other learned persons, well versed in matters of state should be appointed to the country's councils…. True, there are many good and trusty merchants whose services one might use, but nonetheless they will always seek profit for themselves.

Leicester wanted to impose a firm and efficient central government on the different states of the Netherlands. A seventeenth-century Dutch historian feared that had Sidney lived he would have 'used his industry, valour, and ability in undermining liberty'.34 The ambivalence with which the Sidney circle viewed rebellion emerges especially clearly in the opening sections of the New Arcadia, in which Musidorus finds himself involved in a class war 'betweene the gentlemen and the peasants' in Laconia: but elsewhere the Helots are viewed as not just the common people but a whole nation who have been oppressed by foreign overlords—like the Dutch in their struggle against Philip II.35 The ambiguity is left unresolved; the episode indicates Sidney's anxiety about the difficulty of distinguishing between controlled aristocratic uprisings and social revolutions. Sidney is also aware that not all aristocratic uprisings serve the good of the state as a whole or even of all members of their own class: on Basilius's death the selfish Timautus gains the support of 'most part of the nobility' for a scheme to seize the queen and the princesses and thus effectively hold power, but Timautus's aims are purely selfish and he wants power for himself rather than his class. And there are problems in more constitutional forms of aristocratic government. Some Arcadians want to establish 'the Lacedemonian government of few chosen senators' on Basilius's death (p. 320): this would clearly be an aristocratic republic on the Venetian model. Others even call for a democratic republic. But only 'the discoursing sort of men' favour such radical changes, which are 'a matter more in imagination than practice' (p. 321). The more active politicians are well aware that a republic, however attractive it might be in theory, could never take root in a country that 'knew no government without a prince'.

Though the Old Arcadia reflects the Sidney circle's suspicion of monarchs who try to turn political life into a theatre, substituting spectacle and pageantry for proper political debate, the work also reveals the importance of ceremony in maintaining social order. Sidney sometimes seems closer to Puttenham than to Languet. The wise king Euarchus stage-manages the trial of the princes effectively, clothing himself in black and sitting in the ducal judgment-seat, 'for Euarchus did wisely consider the people to be naturally taken with exterior shows far more than with inward consideration of the material points … in these pompous ceremonies he well knew a secret of government much to consist' (OA, p. 375). The princes try to manipulate the power of the imagination, dressing themselves in their most spectacular clothes in order to arouse the people's sympathy. This is clearly a dishonest attempt to disguise their failings; but they have earlier used precisely the same technique to save Basilius from the rebels. Pyrocles, still in his female disguise, climbs into the very judgment-seat in which Euarchus is later to sit, and harangues the crowd in a speech that appeals to their imagination more than their reason: necessarily so, since a fully honest and rational explanation of why he was there would make him emerge in an unfavourable light and confirm the Arcadians' suspicion that their prince is irresponsibly allowing himself to be led astray by a foreigner. He peppers his speech with rhetorical questions, which are, as the rhetorician John Hoskins pointed out, 'very fit for a speech to many and indiscreet hearers, and therefore much used in Pirocles's oration to the seditious multitude'.36 He reinforces his points by means of striking gestures, which display a 'sweet magnanimity' (or, in another manuscript, 'sweet imagination' (OA, p. 131), and these gestures 'gave … a way unto her speach through the rugged wildernesse of their imaginations'.37 In their pursuit of their loved ones the princes use somewhat Machiavellian strategies of pursuit and disguise: Musidorus callously exploits the low-born Mopsa in order to gain access to Pamela by this 'policy' (OA, p. 102), while Pyrocles is said to display a 'dangerous cunning'. But their skill in disguise is politically useful: Pyrocles plans to outwit the Helots by disguising soldiers as peasants so that the rebels will admit them to their town under the impression that they sympathise with their class war. Sidney argued in the Defence of Poetry that literature was more exemplary than history because it distributed rewards and punishments justly, but many critics have found the treatment of the princes at the end more indulgent than just. But Sidney may not always have thought as moralistically as he tried to do in the Defence of Poetry. He is known to have translated the first two books of Aristotle's Rhetoric, a work which takes a cynically pragmatic view of the best means of influencing an audience, notably different from the more moralistic conceptions of rhetoric and political virtue found in Cicero or Quintilian. John Hoskins makes an interesting comment about Sidney's processes of composition:38

The perfect expressing of all qualities is learned out of Aristotle's ten books of moral philosophy; but because, as Machiavel saith, perfect virtue or perfect vice is not seen in our time, which altogether is humorous and spurting, therefore the understanding of Aristotle's Rhetoric is the directest means of skill to describe, to move, to appease, or to prevent any motion whatsoever.

Sidney, says Hoskins, had learned this lesson. The Arcadia can be seen as the product of Machiavellian rhetoric rather than moral philosophy.

Sidney seems to have decided that the first version of the Arcadia was not didactic enough, for soon after it was completed he began to revise it, making the conduct of the princes less devious and more exemplary. These revisions became more and more elaborate until they overshadowed the original narrative. The revised version of the Arcadia became a heroic romance, a celebration of Protestant magnanimity. Sidney added lengthy descriptions of chivalric combats. Humanists in the earlier sixteenth century had ridiculed romance with its glorifications of meaningless combats and adulterous loves; but Sidney tries to give romance political significance and a clear, coherent structure. Pyrocles and Musidorus do battle with political evils rather than mythical beasts: when they do meet some giants, Sidney adds the demystifying comment that they are really only 'two brothers of huge both greatnesse & force'.39 The princes roam through Asia Minor righting wrongs and deposing tyrants, their sympathies going to 'the yong men of the bravest minds' who 'cried with lowde voice, Libertie'.40 The political scenes seem to indicate Sidney's endorsement of the Huguenot theory of limited rebellion, though, as has been seen in the case of the Helot episode, there are hesitations and ambiguities.41 Sidney is trying to synthesise the aristocratic cult of honour with humanist and Protestant didacticism, to produce a work that men like Languet or Buchanan could respect on political as well as literary grounds.42

But the attempt is not a complete success. The revisions are not fully integrated with the original framework. The heroic deeds of Pyrocles and Musidorus are recounted in extensive flashbacks: the princes are in fact telling the princesses of their heroic deeds in order to make their wooing more effective. The rhetorical end of these narratives may be didactic as far as the reader is concerned but it is meant to be erotic to the princesses. At the start of Book III the plot takes a new turn and the princesses are abducted, not by the princes but by the tormented aristocrat Amphialus. The centre of interest now passes to the princesses and Pyrocles and Musidorus play a relatively subordinate part from now on. Basilius comes to rescue the princesses but the siege becomes a frustrating stalemate. Amphialus tries to justify his resistance to Basilius by using some of the commonplaces of Calvinist theories of rebellion, but his motives are essentially personal and selfish, springing from a romantic obsession rather than a political objective, in analysing Amphialus's conduct, and throughout the romance, Sidney oscillates between sophisticated humanist political discourse and the clichés of chivalric romance. Battle is confined to a series of single combats, which can be described in terms borrowed from courtly tilts rather than in the language of sixteenth-century military science. The knights dress up in fantastic and colourful costumes; the field of battle becomes a 'blooddy Teniscourt' in which 'the game of death' is played; blood becomes a caparison 'decking' Philautus's armour.43 Violent action is blocked and displaced into spectacle; Amphialus stages a grisly mock-execution of Pamela in front of Philoclea, a sadistic 'Tragedie'.44 The princesses are kidnapped after they have been lured into a grove on the premise of being shown pastoral 'devises'. The captivity scenes reflect Sidney's growing interest in inner spiritual qualities which make external pomp and ceremony seem emptily theatrical.

But Sidney's essentially courtly style did not offer a suitable vehicle for exploring inner states and the result is normally somewhat clumsy and external. Art is persistently associated with violence in the revised Arcadia. Sidney extended his portrayal of the defeat of the rebels in Book II, including a scene in which a 'poor painter' who had tried to portray the battle has both his hands chopped off. Spectacular representations of massacres were, it may be noted, in vogue in European courts of the sixteenth century, but Sidney seems exceptional in the sadistic comedy he tried to extract from scenes like that of the painter 'well skilled in wounds, but with never a hand to performe his skill'.45 In another episode an evil king writes the son nets of his love in the blood of his subjects and tunes them in their cries.46 The grotesque juxtapositions of warfare and courtly spectacle grow more and more insistent in the later part of the revised Arcadia. Sidney broke off the revision before he had reached the end of the third book, possibly because he realised that the work's serious religious and political concerns, and its increasing inwardness, were becoming incompatible with the courtly framework.

The later parts of the Arcadia reveal a tendency which, as will be seen, becomes increasingly explicit in the later writings of Spenser and of Sidney's closest friend, Fulke Greville: the imagery of courtly ceremonial is associated with violence and imprisonment rather than delight. The claustrophobic atmosphere reflects Sidney's frustration at enforced inactivity. It has often been noted that the tournaments in the Arcadia are modelled on the joustings held at Queen Elizabeth's court; in Book II he portrays 'Philisides' in the costume of the Shepherd Knight which he had himself adopted at court, and pays tribute to Queen Helen of Corinth, who bears a resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. But the specific compliment to Elizabeth is in fact remarkably brief, in comparison with the tendency of many Elizabethan romance-writers to drop into praise of Elizabeth at the slightest provocation. The political connotations of tournaments were complex. In the Middle Ages tournaments had often been viewed with suspicion by the monarchy because they tended to foment rivalry and dissension amongst the nobility. While the aristocrats tended to stress the practical function of tournaments, monarchs anxious to discipline their often anarchic desire for personal honour preferred to turn them into spectacles, displays of courtly elegance rather than military valour.47 The Tudor monarchs had been anxious to curb the military power of the aristocracy, and this process was effectively completed by Elizabeth when she crushed the last major Catholic uprising in 1570-1. After the Northern Rising the tilts held to commemorate the queen's Accession Day acquired a strongly Protestant colouring, and the Leicester circle were enthusiastic participants. For the old Catholic nobility the cult of aristocratic honour was associated with the old religion, but the Leicester circle saw themselves as Protestant noblemen with a firm commitment to the monarchy. There were still tensions, however: they were anxious to serve the queen on the battlefield, whereas Elizabeth was reluctant to spend money on warfare. The 'Vindiciae contra tyrannos' gave an eloquent warning against the danger that monarchs would aestheticise politics, would turn real privileges into empty spectacle:48

You speak of peers, notables, and officials of the crown, while I see nothing but fading names and archaic costumes like the ones they wear in tragedies. I see scarcely any remnant of ancient authority and liberty…. Let electors, palatine, peers, and the other notables not assume that they were created and ordained merely to appear at coronations and dress up in splendid uniforms of olden times, as though they were actors in an ancient masque playing the parts of a Roland, Oliver, Renaldo or any other great hero for a day, or as though they were staging a scene from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table … and that when the crowd has gone and Calliope has said farewell, they have played their parts in full.

Sidney participated in tournaments in order to testify his loyalty, but he was more and more eager to turn tiltyard fictions into military reality. There was an element of bitter irony in his chosen persona of the 'shepherd knight': he was forced to spend his time in peaceful, contemplative pursuits because he was forbidden the opportunity to put his ideals into action. His New Year's gift to the queen in 1581 concentrated the political ambivalence of the Arcadia into a striking symbol: it was a jewel-encrusted whip.

In his last years Sidney seems to have turned to more explicitly Protestant literary forms: he translated parts of Duplessis-Mornay's Of the Truth of the Christian Religion and the Divine Weeks and Works of the Huguenot poet Du Bartas. His chance to serve the queen in action did not come until 1585, when Elizabeth at last gave way to circumstances—after the assassination of William of Orange, the Spanish had been gaining ground against the rebels—and allowed Leicester to lead an expedition to the Netherlands. The expedition became a Protestant crusade; the queen nearly revoked Leicester's appointment when she realised the radicalism of many of the followers he had chosen. When they arrived in the Netherlands Leicester and his allies angered the queen by seeming to go beyond their instructions. Certainly Sidney, in moments of Protestant enthusiasm, came to see the expedition as a crusade in which religious considerations were ultimately more important than service of the queen: she was 'but a means whom God useth … I am faithfully persuaded that if she shold withdraw her self other springes woold ryse to help this action'.49 But Leicester's campaign was a failure, marred by tensions analogous to those which prevented Sidney from completing the Arcadia. Leicester and his supporters complained that they did not receive enough backing from England: their religious zeal made them rather suspect to conservatives at home. On the other hand, their military effectiveness may have been diminished by the fact that they were much more experienced in symbolic conflicts in the tiltyard than in real warfare. Fulke Greville's account of Sidney's death was almost certainly much distorted by hindsight but it does capture something of the atmosphere that surrounded the expedition; Sidney, he says, removed a crucial part of his armour so that he would not be better protected than his peers, and was thus unprotected from his fatal wound.50 Aristocratic role and godly self formed a perfect union only in what Sidney had called 'the game of death'.


1 New evidence about connections between Sidney's poems and his appearances in tournaments is provided by Peter Beal, 'Poems by Sir Philip Sidney: the Ottley Manuscript' Library, 5th series, 33 (1978), pp. 284-95.

2 On the influence of Sannazaro see David Kalstone, Sidney's Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations, Cambridge, Mass., 1965, pp. 9-39.

3 George Whetstone, Sir Philip Sidney, his honorable Life, his valiant Death and true Vertues, London, 1587, sig. B2v.

4The Defence of Poetry in Miscellaneous Prose, p. 112.

5The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), ed. Jean Robertson, Oxford, 1973, p. 56. References in the text are to this edition.

6 John Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, London, 1961, pp. 139-55.

7 John Hollander, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700, New York, 1970, pp. 141-3; Frances A. Yates, The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century, London, 1947, pp. 36ff.

8 Vernon A. Hall, Renaissance Literary Criticism: A Study of its Social Content, New York, 1945.

9 I.D. McFarlane, Buchanan, London, 1981, p. 77; on the possible influence of Bale's John the Baptist play on Buchanan see pp. 381-2.

10 James E. Phillips, 'George Buchanan and the Sidney Circle' HLO, 12 (1948-9), pp. 23-55.

11 McFarlane, Buchanan, pp. 391-2.

12 Quoted by Williamson, Scottish National Consciousness in the Age of James VI, p. 113.

13 Sidney, Miscellaneous Prose, p. 68.

14 Martines, Power and Imagination, pp. 452ff.

15 Sidney, Miscellaneous Prose, p. 86.

16 In his excellent study Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia, Hassocks, 1979, Richard C. McCoy gives a much fuller study of the critical issues involved than is possible here.

17 Greville, Life of Sidney, p. 104.

18 Quoted by McCoy, p. 16.

19 Sidney, Complete Works, ed. A. Feuillerat, 4 vols, Cambridge, 1912-26, III, p. 127.

20 A.C. Hamilton, Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of his Life and Works, Cambridge, 1977, pp. 25-6; Miscellaneous Prose, p. 22.

21 Blair Worden, 'Classical Republicanism and the Puritan Revolution' in History and Imagination: Essays in Honour of Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed. Hugh Lloyd-Jones et al., London, 1981, pp. 185-90.

22 On the possible influence of Smith on Sidney see Ernest W. Talbert, The Problem of Order: Elizabethan Political Commonplaces and an Example of Shakespeare's Art, Chapel Hill, 1962, pp. 89-97.

23 Noted by R.H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, London, 1912, p. 194.

24D.N.B., Sir Henry Lee.

25 E.K. Chambers, Sir Henry Lee, Oxford, 1936, pp. 43-6, 92-3, 165-8. Yates, Astraea, pp. 89-108, discusses Lee's career in terms of an 'imaginative refeudalisation' of European culture.

26 Franco Marenco, Arcadia Puritana, Bari, 1968; Andrew D. Weiner, Sir Philip Sidney and the Poetics of Protestantism, Minneapolis, 1978. An interest in representations of female beauty was, of course, far from unknown amongst Puritans: it is interesting to study the passages from the Arcadia transcribed by the American Puritan Seaborn Cotton (S.E. Morrison, 'The Reverend Seaborn Cotton's Commonplace Book' Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachussetts, 32 (1937), p. 323).

27 John J. O'Connor, Amadis de Gaule and its Influence on Elizabethan Literature, New Brunswick, 1970, pp. 204-5, notes that most English adaptations of Contiental romances adopt a stricter sexual morality.

28 Keith Thomas, 'The Puritans and Adultery: The Act of 1650 Reconsidered', in Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays in Seventeenth-century History presented to Christopher Hill, ed. Donald H. Pennington and Keith Thomas, Oxford, 1978, p. 267.

29 D.J. McGinn, 'The Precise Angelo', in J.Q. Adams Memorial Studies, ed. J.G. McManaway et al., Washington, 1948, pp. 129-40.

30 Frank Kermode, The Faerie Queene Books I and V, in Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, London, 1971, pp. 50-2. On the Sidney circle's interest in equity, see Woudhuysen, Leicester's Literary Patronage, pp. 70-4.

31 McCoy, p. 136.

32 Sidney, Works, I, 315 (New Arcadia, Book II, chapter 26).

33 Quoted by Jan Albert Dop, Eliza's Knights: Soldiers, Poets, and Puritans in the Netherlands, 1572-1586, Alblasserdam, 1981, p. 164.

34 J.A. van Dorsten, Poets, Patrons and Professors: Sir Philip Sidney, Daniel Rogers and the Leiden Humanists, Leiden and London, 1962, p. 167.

35 Sidney, Works, I, 14 (New Arcadia, pp. 1, 2).

36 John Hoskins, Directions for Speech and Style, ed. Hoyt H. Hudson, Princeton, 1935, p. 33.

37 Sidney, Works, I, 318 (New Arcadia, II, p. 26).

38Directions for Speech and Style, p. 41.

39Works, I, 204 (New Arcadia, II, p. 9).

40Works, I, 200 (New Arcadia, II, p. 8).

41 M. Bergbusch, 'Rebellion in the New Arcadia," PQ, 53 (1974), pp. 29-41.

42 On the Protestantisation of the cult of honour in relation to Sidney see James, English Politics and the Concept of Honour, pp. 68-74.

43Works, I, pp. 390, 456 (New Arcadia, III, pp. 8, 18).

44Works, I, p. 476 (New Arcadia, III, p. 21).

45Works, I, p. 313 (New Arcadia, II, p. 25).

46Works, I, p. 233 (New Arcadia, II, p. 13).

47 Richard Barber, The Knight and Chivalry London, 1970, pp. 293ff.

48 Julian H. Franklin, Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century, New York, 1969, pp. 167, 191-2.

49Works, III, p. 166.

50 Greville, Life of Sidney, pp. 128-30.

Ronald Levao (essay date 1985)

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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 contemplations therein." So mighty does his art appear, thanks to the light of self-love, that "if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse" (p. 95).1 Following his master, Sidney opens with a theoretical justification of his own vocation, poetry, but with such a precedent, the reader may wonder if Sidney will persuade him to wish himself a poem (which is, in fact, where Sidney's Astrophil ends up in Sonnet 45 of Astrophil and Stella).

The paradoxical opening of the Apology sets the tone for the rest of the work, which is filled with contradictions and shifts of emphasis. Its studied carelessness and playfulness are in marked contrast to the intense engagement of a Minturno or a Tasso, yet it is through these gestures that Sidney makes his most suggestive critical probings. What those probings reveal can be maddeningly elusive. Readers have often mistaken his intellectual affinities because of the oblique and self-conscious way in which he echoes traditional philosophical and critical attitudes, or have felt compelled to sketch in the lines of coherence they assume must underlie the argument. The result has been a series of alternative maps to Sidney's many fascinations: the nature of poetic invention and imitation, of moving through delight, of the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate fictions. These issues were indeed important to Sidney and became increasingly so over the short course of his poetic career. A closer look at his performances both here and in his other major works, however, reveals no single theoretical affinity or formulation, but rather an effort to come to terms with the deepest tensions of Renaissance poetics, as well as Sidney's kinship with the most penetrating and original thought of his time.

The Fore-Conceit

Sidney's purpose seems familiar enough: to justify poetic fictions against the charge that they are unreal and irresponsible fantasies. For the sake of clarity, I begin by dividing my examination into two parts, following the line drawn by Sidney's own argument:

Any understanding knoweth the skill of the artificer standeth in that Idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that Idea is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he hath imagined them. Which delivering forth also is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as Nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright why and how that maker made him. (p. 101)

What is striking about this defense of poetic invention is that Sidney seeks to justify poetry by turning toward the two extremes it mediates, first to its source in the poet's "Idea" and then to the moral effect it has on the reader's world; it becomes a conduit of the ideal into the actual. To understand how Sidney puts his argument together, we must take a closer look at these two extremes and their relations.

First, what is the Idea, or "fore-conceit"? Modern critics often point to it as an example of Renaissance Neoplatonism and/or Augustinianism. Sidney's poet sets his mind on the Ideas beyond phenomenal appearance; the consequent poetic image "proliferates meanings which the discursive reason cannot hope to encompass."2 The Apology does entertain echoes of Neoplatonism, or at least the claims Neoplatonism had made possible. After reviewing the arts of man and deciding that all follow the "works of nature" as their object, Sidney follows Landino and Scaliger in setting the poet apart as a free creator:

Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect into another nature, in making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with Nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden, (p. 100)

The motive for connecting this golden world to Platonic Ideas, or to Augustinian illumination that grants "an apprehension of the reality of things," is succinctly stated by Panofsky in his discussion of the sixteenth-century revival of Neoplatonism:

The Idea was reinvested with its apriori and metaphysical character … the autocratic human mind, now conscious of its own spontaneity, believed that it could maintain this spontaneity in the face of sensory experience only by legitimizing the former sub specie divinitalis; the dignity of genius, now explicitly recognized and emphasized is justified by its origin in God.3

Italian critics, as we have seen, often turned to such justifications, and Sidney seems to need them as well. Like the Neoplatonists before him, he praises the poet as a creator "freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit," independent of nature and of any given subject matter. The poet does not derive "conceit out of a matter, but maketh matter for a conceit" (p. 120). In the Apology, however, Sidney tends to regard the protection the Platonic-Augustinian argument would afford as part of a voice that he self-consciously affects, and a voice he asks us to think about critically.

Sidney's discussion of poetic inspiration, for example, is deliberately tangled and ambivalent. He starts by examining the Roman term for poet, vates: he translates this "heavenly" title as "diviner, forseer, or prophet" and says that the Romans attributed the power of prophecy to Virgil. Sidney then gives us two contradictory reactions to this information. First he condemns the Romans for their "vain and godless superstition" (p. 98), and then he tells us they were "altogether not without ground." He softens his criticisms because "that same exquisite observing of number and measure in words, and that high flying liberty of conceit proper to the poet, did seem to have some divine force in it" (p. 99). The poet, then, is not really inspired; his heavenly and divine nature is at best metaphorical. It is an illusion, but an understandable one, basd on verbal artifice and the "high flying liberty of conceit." The irony is clear: inspiration is not the cause of the poet's conceit but the effect that the conceit has on the reader.4

Where Sidney does mention poets who were truly inspired by God (David, Solomon, et al.), he is careful to set them apart from "right poets," his subject.5 He makes so many motions in distinguishing these right poets from philosophical and historical poets (those who follow a "proposed subject" instead of their own "invention") that another distinction is easily missed.6 It can, however, be deduced easily enough, and it is equally important to his argument. Sidney is interested in a poetic grounded in the human mind, and inspiration would compromise its autonomy. As Sidney tells us later, Plato in his Ion "attributeth unto Poesy more than myself do, namely, to be a very inspiring of a divine force, far above man's wit" (p. 130).

Sidney's use of metaphysics can be deceptive. Though he uses its terms to praise the poet's creativity, he then dismisses them before they can compromise the mind's autonomy. The same pattern recurs immediately after the vates discussion, when Sidney turns to the word poet: "It cometh of this word poiein, which is 'to make.'" Sidney's use of Greek etymology, like Landino's, serves as an occasion to honor the poet, and Sidney follows with the previously quoted celebration of poetry's golden world and the poet's creation of a new nature. Sidney then defends his claims:

Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of Nature; but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature: which in nothing he showeth so much as in Poetry, when with the force of a divine breath he bringeth things forth far surpassing her doings, with no small argument to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam: since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it. (p. 101)

Man's position is a gift of God, and he is fitted into a hierarchical series of makers, beginning with God, who surpasses him, and concluding with nature, which he surpasses. But if the gift explains man's capacity, it does not control his use of it, nor bind it to the fixed order of things. After his ironic reading of the superstitious vates argument, Sidney invokes the poet's "divine breath" with a self-conscious sense of its status as metaphor, referring to man's own efforts as he brings forth his own creations, echoing only obliquely Scaliger's claim that man "transforms himself into a second deity."7

Nor is there a clear graduation from the mind's operations to a transcendental source. Sidney's "highest point of man's wit" is not a mystical apex mentis directly sparked by the divine. It is the faculty that creates fictions, the faculty that creates another nature and so reveals our divinity to ourselves. In order to demonstrate "erected wit," we must be "lifted up with the vigour of [our] own invention" (p. 100). We know our Ideas, not by tracing them back to an eternal Logos, but by making them "manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as [we have] imagined them" (p. 101).

Furthermore, the above quotation on the hierarchy of makers is a defense of one possible metaphor—an attempt to show that it is not "too saucy." After his magnificent praise of the erected wit, Sidney tells us that "these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted. Thus much (I hope) will be given me, that the Greeks with some probability of reason gave him the name above all names of learning" (p. 101). He pulls us up with a reminder that the passage is something of an indulgence, a voice he has assumed in order to sound out certain attractive, if abstruse, arguments. He is not concerned with proving their validity, and he neither affirms nor denies them to those who will not grant them. He is satisfied, rather, with showing that the Greek name displays "some probability of reason." Indeed, the argument for the poet as maker is not so much a justification of the wit as a demonstration of it. It is a bold "comparison," which, according to Aristotle and Renaissance rhetoricians, is a prime way of exhibiting wit.8

Sidney's discussion of the fore-conceit, or Idea, then, may remind us of Neoplatonic art theory, but its orientation is closer to Cusanus's art of conjecture. The mind's highest capacity, like Cusanus's intellectus, may suggest an intuitive leap to a higher unity, but it always return us to the mind's active fashioning. The metaphysical terms of the Apology, like the elaborate schemata of De coniecturis, must be pictured as lying within, rather than outside of, the sphere of human making.

Many Cyruses

If the poet is "lifted up with the vigour of his own invention," so, too, is the reader. Poetry, as its humanist defenders often tell us, is the best teacher, the "first light-giver to ignorance," and the first study to show us the "pleasure in the exercises of the mind" (pp. 96, 98). The separation of the Idea from a fixed ontology, moreover, makes poetry a special kind of exercise. In a fascinating article, A. E. Malloch argues that, for Sidney, it is only in poetry that reason finds an object properly proportioned to its capacities. But Malloch sees this in a Thomist light: the fallen world is deficient, whereas poetry's golden world reveals a "fullness of being" that fully actualizes the act of cognition.9 I would argue, on the contrary, that the poetic object is best proportioned to our reason because that object is a projection of our reason. Jacopo Mazzoni made this very argument in Italy only a few years after the Apology was written. The object of poetic imitation is one that is consciously framed to fit the poet's intellectual needs.10

The more autonomous the poet's Idea becomes, however, the more insistent the need to attach it to something outside itself. And if a metaphysical foundation is problematic, then a practical and ethical application becomes all-important. The function of poetry is to reform the will, as well as to perfect the wit, since "no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue" (p. 123). Using a suggestive pun, Sidney writes: "The poet … doth draw the mind more effectually than any other art doth" (p. 115). The poet both depicts the mind and leads it to action. And this brings us to the second part of Sidney's theory, that poetry is justified not only by the brilliance of the Idea but by the way it works in the world, bestowing a "Cyrus upon the world to make many Cyruses."

Sidney echoes the rhetorical interpretation of poetry, and following Minturno's transference of Cicero's "teach, delight, and move" from the orator to the poet, he writes that poets "imitate both to delight and teach: and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand" (p. 103). Poetry's rhetorical address to the reader, however, is shaped by Sidney's radical conception of the poet's Idea, and the result is a discussion of didacticism that brings to the surface the intrinsic difficulties of such justifications.

Sidney approaches this discussion by pretending to moderate a dispute between the educative claims of philosophy and history, only to carry the prize away for poetry. A philosopher claims that by teaching what virtue is, his discipline makes clear "how it extendeth itself out of the limits of a man's own little world to the government of families, and maintaining of public societies" (p. 105). Sidney objects that the philosopher never extends himself. He is trapped within the closed world of his fellow philosophers: "The philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught" (p. 109). Sidney later parodies the circularity of such discourse: "Nay truly, learned men have learnedly thought that where once reason hath so much overmastered passion as that the mind hath a free desire to do well, the inward light each mind hath in itself is as good as a philosopher's book; seeing in nature we know it is well to do well" (p. 113). The learned learnedly discuss how it is well to do well, but their terms only point to themselves: "Happy is that man who may understand him, and more happy that can apply what he doth understand" (p. 107). The same charge reappears indirectly, if a bit more cruelly, during a later discussion of love: "Some of my masters the philosophers spent a good deal of their lamp-oil in setting forth the excellency of it" (p. 125). Lamp oil, Sidney suggests, is all a philosopher usually "spends" in love. The philosopher fails in teaching and seduction because his definitions "lie dark before the imaginative and judging power, if they be not illuminated or figured forth by the speaking picture of poesy" (p. 107).

If philosophy gives us reason devoid of external application, history poses an opposite extreme, for it is circumscribed by the world of experience, one devoid of any perceivable rationality. The historian is "bound to tell things as things were" and "cannot be liberal … of a perfect pattern" (p. 110):

The historian, being captived to the truth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from welldoing, and an encouragement to unbridled wickedness.

For see we not valiant Miltiades rot in his fetters? the just Phocion and the accomplished Socrates put to death like traitors? the cruel Severus live prosperously? (pp. 111-12)

Not only is the historian's world one of moral chaos, but history, in recording it, lacks logical coherence. His example "draweth no necessary consequence," and so he follows the logic of "because it rained yesterday, therefore it should rain to-day" (pp. 107, 110). The historian cannot understand the nature of examples and how the mind uses them,

but if he know an example only informs a conjectured likelihood, and so go by reason, the poet doth so far exceed him as he is to frame his example to the which is most reasonable … where the historian in his bare was … must tell events whereof he can yield no cause; or, if he do, it must be poetical, (p. 110)

The poet knows that the mind must work through conjectures, that examples can lead only to "a conjectured likelihood." Thus the poet is freed from imitating things as they have been, the "bare was," and may concentrate, instead, on the modes of understanding themselves, the lines of connection or consequence the mind attempts to draw in making sense out of the world. His examples are framed according "to that which is most reasonable," rather than any external res. It is of small importance that the historian can boast that he brings us "images of true matters, such as indeed were done, and not such as fantastically or falsely may be suggested to have been done" (p. 109), for he knows better "how this world goeth than how his own wit runneth" (p. 105). The poet, by contrast, having no law but wit, can frame examples into purified types of moral ideals: "If the poet do his part aright, he will show you in Tantalus, Atreus, and such like, nothing that is not to be shunned; in Cyrus, Aeneas, Ulysses, each thing to be followed" (p. 110).

The argument, as Sidney notes, is based on Aristotle: poetry is more philosophical than history because it deals "with Katholou … the universal consideration" (p. 109). Italian critics often fortified Aristotle's universal by associating it with Platonic exemplars, and it is sometimes suggested that Sidney follows their lead. The golden reshaping of the world, like the "Idea" argument, does echo Neoplatonic claims. Ficino writes, for example: "What, then, does the intellect seek if not to transform all things into itself by depicting all things in the intellect according to the nature of the intellect? … the universe, in a certain manner, should become intellect"11 But again, Sidney both appeals to meta physical claims and refuses their protection. After his ridiculing of philosophers, we cannot leap so adroitly to fixed and timeless exemplars. Nor did Aristotle, as Sidney's cagey circularity suggests: Aristotle's "reason … is most full of reason." A closer philosophical analogue to Sidney's "universal consideration" is the Cusan conjecture. The latter, as we have seen, is the mind's response to the unknowable, whether the hidden God or a world without apprehensible quiddities and fixed points; the mind turns to its purest forms of thought, usually mathematics, and projects them outward in a display of its own fecundity. Sidney's "highest point of man's wit" may not produce mathematical forms, but its poetic fictions fulfill a parallel function: the poet's wit is lifted up with the vigor of its own invention.12 The poet faces a brazen world of moral disorder, which snares the historian in its senselessness, but delivers back a golden world, another nature structured by his mind.

Sidney's justification for such invention is not ontological authority but didactic efficacy. If we look back to the Idea/Cyrus passage, we can see how insistently Sidney attempts to join his golden world and didacticism in a bond of dialectical necessity. The poet's fiction, his delivering of the Idea, is "not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air; but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency as Nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world, to make many Cyruses" (p. 101). Moreover, the poet's effect on the world is as important to the poet as it is to the world he affects. It is the only way he can grant substance to his creations, the only way he can be sure they are not a sign of his estrangement. Like Danielle Barbara and others, Sidney cautions that eloquent fantasies must be carefully directed to prevent the teacher of the many from becoming the frenzied and solitary builder of "castles in the air."13

At crucial junctures in the Apology, where Sidney would have found a metaphysical argument most useful, we find, instead, claims for didactic efficacy. Forrest Robinson, in keeping with his argument that the poet has access to absolute patterns, suggests that the fore-conceit is a preverbal mental diagram, which, because of its participation in absolute truth, serves as a universal frame to insure a uniform response in all readers.14 But when Sidney comes to discuss how this frame works, he tells us simply that when readers of poesy are "looking for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative ground-plot of a profitable invention" (p. 124). Sidney does not claim that there is any true or universal Idea embodied by, or hidden in, the ground-plot. "Invention" carries its full ambiguity here,15 and we cannot tell whether the reader comes upon a preestablished meaning or fashions his own, any more than we can be certain that one man's conjectures in Cusanus's universe are the same as another's. All we know is that the "invention" ought to be "profitable." We are not guaranteed a fixed unity between speaker and hearer; the most interpretation can aim for is some ethical utility.

A similar development appears in the icastic/fantastic opposition, so important for Renaissance criticism. As William Rossky has shown, the fear of imaginative distortion was a powerful theme in Renaissance England, and English texts are filled with admonitions to control the imagination.16 In George Puttenham's Arte of English Poesie (1589), a sophisticated understanding of the contingency of cultural norms is chastened by the demand that the mind be fitted to objective truth. Puttenham warns against the "evill and vicious disposition of the braine," which can distort the judgment with "busie and disordered phantasies." Our concepts can become like "false glasses and shew thinges otherwise than they be in deede." Despite his earlier echoes of Sidney that the poet "contrives out of his owne braine" without "any foreine copie or example," Puttenham insists that the orderly imagination must represent things "according to their very truth. If otherwise, then doth it breede Chimeres and monsters in mans imaginations and not only in his imaginations but also in his ordinarie actions and life which ensues." The useful life must be "illuminated with the brightest irradiations of knowledge and of the veritie and due proportion of things."17

Sidney, by contrast, avoids such Augustinian metaphysics. More decisively committed to poetic feigning he welcomes the mind's ability to create such new forms "as never were in Nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies" (p. 100). For him, the icastic/fantastic dichotomy is not an issue of metaphysics but of ethics: "For I will not deny but that man's wit may make Poesy, which should be eikastike, which some learned have defined, 'figuring forth good things,' to be phantastike, which doth contrariwise infect the fancy with unworthy objects" (p. 125). There is no question here of approximating an image to an external model, of a faithful likeness being opposed to a mere semblance. For Sidney, as for Mazzoni (who places the fantastic over the icastic), this approximation has become too restrictive. But instead of reversing the distinction, Sidney redefines it: "good" and "unworthy" are purely ethical. Thomas Wright was to warn his English audience in 1605 that the distorted imagination "putteth greene spectacles before the eyes of the witte, to make it see nothing but greene."18 But for Sidney, as for Cusanus, one can never take away the spectacles. All cognition implies some filtering or refraction; we can only hope to control the lenses we use.

But what is the basis of this control? Sidney admits that man's wit can produce irresponsible poetry, and hopes by this admission to answer those who see poetry as a corrupting influence: we should "not say that Poetry abuseth man's wit, but that man's wit abuseth Poetry" (p. 125). Shifting the blame closes one problem, but it opens a larger one. For poetry depends on the wit, it is born in the fore-conceit, and the poet follows no law but wit. Without a direct argument of inspiration or illumination, how can we be sure the light-giving poet himself has the proper light? What is the foundation for his claims? Some critics, borrowing from the rhetorical tradition, argue that the good poet must also be a good man, but this only begs the question.

Sidney's double justification—through the fore-conceit and through didacticism—proves to be doubly problematic. Both are traditionally founded on metaphysics, but Sidney wants to justify poetry without recourse to such support. The poetic "Idea" points to perfection by pointing back to itself; like Cusanus's conjectures, it justifies itself by repeating the act of creation. The other side of the argument, the attempt to translate poetic effects into moral ones, is pursued with perhaps even greater urgency. Sidney would very much like to present poetry as an instrument of the moral, active life, but the very process of making the argument exposes its gaps; indeed, it appears to face a dilemma similar to that of the Idea. Wimsatt alerts us to the problem:

Sidney, like most of those who have maintained that poetry is (and ought to be) moral, has not been able to resolve an ambiguity of the word ought as used in the formula. Is this a poetic "ought," or is it in fact only a moral "ought"? In the second sense, "ought to be moral" is a tautology—since moral is what all our works ought to be.19

The easiest way out for Sidney would have been to repeat Boccaccio's claims for the unity of poetry and theology, or to claim some metaphysical universal at work, as did many who propped up their interpretation of Aristotle's "ought" as a moral term. As Sidney's argument stands, it verges on telling us that poetry ought to be what it ought to be, and like the moral philosophers he parodies, Sidney finds his terms pointing back to themselves.

The Poet Nothing Affirms

One of the reasons there is such difficulty on both sides of the justification is the paradoxical nature of the poetic fictions that lie between them. Unlike some rhetorical critics who argue that the poet derives true conclusions from false elements, Sidney tells us that the poet

nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For, as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false; so as the other artists, and especially the historian, affirming many things can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies. But the poet (as I said before) never affirmeth. The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination to conjure you to believe for true what he writes, (pp. 123-24)

Insisting on the fictional nature of poetry, Sidney argues that its essential feature is the poet's "feigning," "not rhyming and versing" (p. 103).20 Poetry inhabits a special realm of discourse, one that, like Mazzoni's idols, eludes the strict laws of verification. While Sidney's claim is not unique in the Renaissance, the route by which he arrives at his claim, and the consequences he draws from it, have an important effect on the way we read the Apology as a whole and lead us to a more general sense of what all discourse implies for Sidney.

As he explores conventional categories and their limits, Sidney's procedure again resembles that of Cusanus, who is forever testing the coincidence of opposites by attempting to reconcile curvature and straightness, potentiality and actuality. Cusanus also submits personifications of competing cultural ideals—the philosopher and the humanist orator—to the scrutiny of the conjecturing idiota, a craftsman who creates forms that never were in nature. Sidney does not deal with the same kinds of puzzles, but his poetic fictions are likewise the result of a coincidence of opposites. The poet fuses the two extremes of the philosopher and the historian as he "coupleth the general notion with the particular example." Poetry is clearly not an Aristotelian mean between them, as some Italian theorists reckoned it on a scale of abstractions.21 Sidney includes both extremes within the synthesis, which gives rise to a distinct mode of discourse, one that he claims surpasses the limits of its rivals. It is, in a sense, more abstract than metaphysics, because it is completely free from nature, unlike the "metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he indeed build upon the depth of Nature" (p. 100). At the same time, it is more concrete than history, since its speaking pictures and shining images are able to instruct and move men immediately.

Neither Sidney nor Cusanus argues for the final sufficiency of conjecture or fiction, but both suggest that all human attempts to make sense out of the world must deal with the conditions of human apprehension. Cusanus tells us in De docta ignorantia that previous philosophers erred in their understanding of the nature of things because of their adherence to the illusion that their systems precisely represented some fixed structure. The doctrine of learned ignorance does not free men from the dilemma of representation but brings them to recognize its inevitability, allowing them to manipulate it consciously. The conjectural art, then, becomes a way of rejecting the constraints of both affirmative and negative ways. Sidney continually suggests such paradoxes; indeed, having released the "right poet" from the burden of affirming, he drives the paradox even further than does Cusanus. Poetry is only a special instance of the fictionality that pervades all discourse. The most casual observation shows that other disciplines use fictions to enhance their effectiveness: lawyers use such fictitious names as "John a Stile" and "John a Noakes" in their cases for the sake of making "their picture the more lively," and chess players call a piece of wood a bishop. So, too, historians, despite their claims of truthfulness, still give "many particularities of battles, which no man could affirm" and invent "long orations," which historical figures never pronounced (p. 97).

In a profounder sense, any attempt at rational communication leads to fiction making. Our only choice is whether or not to acknowledge the pretense. So the historian is described as "loaden with old mouse-eaten records, authorising himself (for the most part) upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay." Any art that purports to rest on the foundation of external verities finds that its support quickly disintegrates. Even those who go beyond books to nature find themselves in this vertiginous plight: "There is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of Nature for his principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become actors and players, as it were, of what Nature will have set forth" (pp. 99-100). They pretend to "follow nature" but find themselves on a stage, their words turned into players' lines, their deeds transformed into mere theatrics.

A.C. Hamilton has argued that Sidney's paradox is borrowed from Agrippa's skeptical attack on the vanity of human studies.22 However much we attribute to Agrippa's influence, whether on the basis of his mocking tone or of his argument that nothing can be affirmed, it is clear that Sidney carries the skeptical argument to its conclusion, that our only access to reality is through fiction and conjecture. As Montaigne writes: "Have I not seen this divine saying in Plato, that Nature is nothing but an aenigmaticall poesie? As a man might say, an overshadowed and darke picture, inter-shining with an infinit varietie of false lights, to exercise our conjecture … philosophy is nothing else but a sophisticated poesie."23 Sidney would object, however, that the only real "poesie" is poetic making itself. It is the greatest of the arts because it is the only one to realize that it is not anchored to a fixed and objective truth. Like Cusanus, Sidney does not let this realization force him back to a passive fideism: the poet recognizes the necessity of conjecture and so boldly sets about inventing his own.

This claim inevitably doubles back to affect the status of the Apology. If the only choice is between those who naively entertain fictions and those who act their own, then Sidney, as the speaker of the Apology, makes it clear that he thinks of himself as one of the latter.

At the beginning of the Apology, Sidney tells us that he is following the example of John Pietro Pugliano, the master horseman and self-promoter, and that in order to defend his own craft, poetry, he needs "to bring some more available proofs." He is alluding to Aristotle's definition of rhetoric as the "faculty of observing in any given case, the available means of persuasion," and so is signaling us that he is about to adopt the role of rhetorician. Kenneth Myrick's book on Sidney helps us to see how self-conscious an actor Sidney is, as he closely models his work after the "judicial oration in behalf of an accused client." Furthermore, Sidney seems to remind us continually of the role he is playing. As Myrick demonstrates, Sidney not only follows the seven-part form of an oration as he found it described by Thomas Wilson but does so in elaborate detail, following the recommended subject matter and style for each section and even marking the transitions between them with conspicuous phrases.24

This is a fitting role for Sidney, considering the highly rhetorical role he imagines for poetry. But the paradox thickens when we realize that Sidney is playing not only the rhetorician but the poet as well. He tells us at the start that he has slipped into the title of poet, and he often demonstrates the appropriateness of that title in the Apology. After describing poetry as "feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else," Sidney proceeds to feign notable images of the poet's competitors, including the moral philosophers, whom he envisions approaching him "with a sullen gravity," and the historian, staggering under a load of mouse-eaten records. Before they have a chance to speak, Sidney gives us a notable image of them as hypocrites and buffoons and, in the process, characterizes himself as one who acts out his own theories.

Sidney leads us to recognize his arguments for his craft as examples of his craft by showing us that they are in the same realm of discourse, the realm of feigned images and self-conscious conjectures. I have already mentioned the discussion of the poet as maker as a kind of conjecture. Later, during a crucial argument with those who claim that fictions are mere day-dreams or toys, Sidney counters, "If to a slight conjecture a conjecture may be opposed, truly it may seem, that as by him [Homer] their learned men took almost their first light of knowledge, so their active men received their first motions of courage" (p. 127).

There are, of course, advantages to adopting this role. Sidney can demonstrate the persuasive force of poetry even as he describes it. And by treating his arguments as conjectures, he can arrange a variety of them without strict regard for consistency. He presents us with "something for everyone," aiming different claims at different readers, hoping that all will find something to serve as "an imaginative ground-plot of a profitable invention." We often find, in fact, running counter to what I have described as the central theory, the testing of more conservative possibilities, aimed at those who may be unhappy with the more daring claims for the poet's creativity. We can see this, for example, in the notion of poetic "fitness."25

Early in the Apology, when praising the poet's creativity, Sidney argues for the peculiar "reverse adequation" found in critics such as Mazzoni. The mind does not fit its concepts to externals but, rather, invents forms to fit its own faculties. Poets are like painters, who, "having no law but wit, bestow that in colours upon you which is fittest for the eye to see" (p. 102). If verse is used in poetry, so much the better, because of the "fitness it hath for memory" (p. 122). But later, when discussing stage productions, Sidney moves far away from the freedom of Mazzoni's idols and closer to the unimaginative literalness of Castelvetro. Unity of place is essential because no audience could believe a rapid change of location. Playwrights are attacked for being too "liberal" with time as well. There must be a correspondence between the imitation and the action imitated. The play should be "fitted to the time it set forth" (p. 134).

These reversals are not restricted to specific questions of dramaturgy. At one moment the poets are free of the works of nature, not enclosed by its "narrow warrant"; at another, they must rely on the "force truth hath in nature," and their proper effects are endangered if the matter is "disproportioned to ourselves and nature" (p. 136). We may even suspect that Sidney is allowing himself to act out his own ambivalence about the poet's "high flying liberty of conceit." Late in the Apology, Sidney tells us that "the highest-flying wit [must] have a Daedalus to guide him," and that this Daedalus has three wings, "Art, Imitation, and Exercise": "Exercise indeed we do, but that very fore-backwardly: for where we should exercise to know, we exercise as having known; and so is our brain delivered of much matter which never was begotten by knowledge" (p. 133). Sidney more strictly regulates the poet with a firmer objective orientation. The next sentence, in fact, complains, "For there being two principal parts—matter to be expressed by words and words to express the matter—in neither we use Art or Imitation rightly" (p. 133). Sidney does not openly contradict his earlier idealistic claim that the poet "bringeth his own stuff, and doth not learn a conceit out of a matter, but maketh matter for a conceit" (p. 120), but he is clearly suggesting a safer res/verba distinction, as used by the Horatian critics to direct poetry outward.26

Sidney can take these liberties because of the manifestly conjectural nature of the Apology.27 But his retreat to more conservative themes does not solve his dilemmas; rather, their conjectural status serves only to remind us of those dilemmas. The claim that poetry neither affirms nor denies may not be unique in the Renaissance, but the suggestion that one's own defense of poetry follows the same pattern forces into question the very possibility of making such a defense.

Sidney's theory requires that he take an affirmative stand somewhere, that he find some first premise from which to deduce his conclusions. Sidney himself makes this need explicit by reducing his argument to a syllogism:

If it be, as I affirm, that no learning is so good as that which teacheth and moveth to virtue, and that none can both teach and move thereto so much as Poetry, then is the conclusion manifest that ink and paper cannot be to a more profitable purpose employed, (p. 123)

Sidney makes this statement just after he has given a lesson in logic to the poet-haters, laughing at their argument that "doth (as they say) but petere principium" (p. 123). But immediately after his own argument, he undermines the clause on which the entire syllogism rests, "I affirm." For it is here that he chooses to place the already-quoted passage on how the poet "never affirmeth," unlike the others who, "affirming many things, can, in the cloudy knowledge of mankind, hardly escape from many lies" (p. 124). Even as he points out the logical mistakes of his opponents, Sidney seems to be deliberately committing his own, making any first premise impossible and so exposing himself to an inevitable infinite regress. To put the matter more simply, if the best the mind can accomplish is conjecture, then its justification is also a conjecture.

Sidney reminds us of this problem in the peroratio, or conclusion:

I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, … to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecians' divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were first bringers-in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher's precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly Deity, by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, Logic, Rhetoric, Philosophy natural and moral, and quid non?; to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in Poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landino, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of divine fury; lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses, (pp. 141-42)

The facetious tone is unmistakable from opening self-deprecation to insistence that we believe the love poet's favorite seduction line. But we also find a summary listing of nearly all the arguments made in the Apology, now paraded without distinction. We are conjured to believe arguments that Sidney has made essential—namely, for poetry as a civilizing force and for its didactic efficacy—as well as those he has rejected, such as Landino's claims for poetry as an emanation of divine fury, and those he has deliberately minimized or ignored, such as the view of poetry as a veil of allegory or as a mystery for the initiated. All are brought out like actors at the end of a play, taking their bows.

Sidney cannot expect that his readers will believe so many conflicting points of view, and the lack of distinction among them hurts their credibility. Even his insistence that we do believe them, when he "conjure[s us] … to believe," is a selfparody, teasing us with verbal echoes of a previous denial: "The poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes."

Myrick, who gives an excellent survey of Sidney's rhetorical strategies, argues that this kind of playfulness adds to the Apology's persuasiveness. It is a sign of Sidney's sprezzatura, a "courtly grace which conceals a sober purpose."28 Sidney does praise the courtier who finds a style "fittest to nature" and who "doth according to art, though not by art," and contrasts him to the pedant who uses "art to show art, and not to hide art" (p. 139). But Sidney is not that courtier. Little is hidden by the style of the Apology. His adopted role is announced as an adopted role, and nearly all his persuasive tricks and witty anecdotes are relished as persuasive tricks and demonstrations of wit. We rarely lose sight of the self-conscious fashioning of the Apology and cannot forget that Sidney is, in Myrick's terms, a "literary craftsman" constructing a "literary artifact."

It would be tempting to conclude that the Apology acts out its own argument, that the work itself moves us through images and fictions while praising the power of poetry to move us through images and fictions. But if this were so, there would be no real argument to act out, only a fiction that neither affirms nor denies, taking as its subject still other fictions. The Apology requires another Apology to justify it, and so on without end. What the Apology does act out are the tensions characteristic of the most adventurous Renaissance thought, whether they appear in the texts of an Elizabethan courtier, an Italian critic, or a German philosopher.

Sidney's friend Hubert Languet had little patience with such protracted ambiguities, and Sidney enjoyed teasing him about it. In his correspondence with the older humanist, Sidney praises the joys of mental exercise: "I am never less a prey to melancholy than when I am earnestly applying the feeble powers of my mind to some high and difficult object."29 Languet approves of his enthusiasm, but warns him not to spend too much time on studies that do not lead directly to a life of action. He recommends Cicero's letters "not only for the beauty of the Latin but also for the very important matter they contain."30 But he is guarded about those who practice a double-translation method, turning Latin into a modern language and then closing the book to translate it back again. This exercise in style is considered useful by some, but it smacks too much of what Languet later calls "literary leisure." Sidney responds:

I intend to follow your advice about composition, thus: I shall first take one of Cicero's letters and turn it into French; then from French into English, and so once more by a sort of perpetual motion … it shall come round into Latin again. Perhaps, too, I shall improve myself in Italian by the same exercise.31

Like Languet, Sidney wants to direct his learning outward, to energize the will through the wit. As a prospective man of action, Sidney endorses the teleology of mental effort: "It is not gnosis but praxis must be the fruit." That such a transition can be made is confidently, even aggressively, proclaimed in the Apology. But for Sidney, there always seems to be another game to be played by the wit, yet another circuit to be made by its self-circling energies, before it can make that transition.32


1 All quotations are from An Apology for Poetry, ed. and introd. Geoffrey Shepherd (1956; reprint, London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1973). Page numbers are cited in text.

2 Walter Davis, Idea and Act in Elizabethan Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 37. For Sidney as a Renaissance Neoplatonist, see in addition to Davis (chapter 2): F. Michael Krouse, "Plato and Sidney's Defense of Poesie," Comparative Literature 6 (1954): 138-47; John P. Mclntyre, S.J., "Sidney's 'Golden World,'" Comparative Literature 14 (1962): 356-65; and William Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History (New York: Knopf, 1957), p. 174. For a view of Sidney in dialogue with the original Plato, see Irene Samuel, "The Influence of Plato on Sidney's Defense of Poesie," Modern Language Quarterly 1 (1940): 383-91. Besides the obvious metaphorical difference, Augustinian illumination is different from Platonic inspiration; the former deals with the general nature of cognition, the latter with a special poetic gift. But both fulfill similar functions in Renaissance poetics. The argument for Sidney's Augustinianism usually relies on the evidence of Mornay and Hoskins's hierarchy of inner "words," leading to the divine Logos. See Apology, ed. Shepherd, pp. 59, 157-58 n.; An Apology for Poetry, ed. and introd. Forrest G. Robinson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), p. 17, n. 63; and Forrest G. Robinson, The Shape of Things Known: Sidney's Apology in Its Philosophical Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), chapter 3.

3 Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, trans. Joseph Peake (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 91-92.

4 The disenchantment with, or distancing from, arguments for poetic inspiration in the later Renaissance has often been noted. See, for example, Baxter Hathaway on Fracastoro, The Age of Criticism: The Late Renaissance in Italy (1962; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), pp. 405-6; Robert Durling, The Figure of the Poet in Renaissance Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), pp. 199-200, where Tasso's yearning for inspiration and his view of poetry as "rationalistic, autonomous techné" are found to be in conflict; and Richard Willis's effort to rationalize inspiration: poets behave "as if … roused by the divine breath, they seem to be transported," cited and discussed in J. V. H. Atkins, English Literary Criticism:. The Renascence (1947; reprint, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), pp. 109-10.

5 See A. C. Hamilton, "Sidney's Idea of the 'Right Poet,'" Comparative Literature 9 (Winter 1957): 51-59.

6 This silence is part of Sidney's rhetorical strategy. He wants us to be able to say, as does John Buxton, that "Sidney describes the poet as a combination of vates, divinely inspired seer, and poet, or maker" (Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance [London: Macmillan, 1954]. p. 4). But Sidney is careful to leave us enough evidence to deduce a more precise set of theoretical distinctions.

7 A useful survey of attitudes toward the poet as "maker" appears in S. K. Heninger, Touches of Sweet Harmony (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1974), pp. 287-324. Sidney echoes the further analogy of human creativity to the divine, but he is oblique about the matter, compared not only to Cusanus, Ficino, and Scaliger, but also to other English apologists of the verbal arts, who, despite their caution, still invoke the analogy more directly. Thomas Wilson calls the eloquent man "halfe a GOD," in the preface to The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), ed. G. H. Mair from the 1560 edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909); Thomas Lodge alludes with favor to the ancient praise of Homer as Humanus deus in his Defence of Poetry (1579), in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), 1:64. Sidney's indirectness cannot be accounted for in terms of religious scruples without also explaining why the pious Wilson did not share the same reluctance when he went halfway to asserting an equivalence. I suspect that Sidney is intrigued by the trope's claims for creativity, but views its ontological complacency with suspicion. Compare also George Puttenham's opening chapter, where after comparing God to a poet, he turns the analogy around, but only with a metaphorical dodge and a lower-case plural: "Poets thus to be conceived … be (by maner of speech) as creating gods" (The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker [1936; reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970], p. 4).

8 William G. Crane, Wit and Rhetoric in the Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1937), p. 14. There are, to be sure, religious themes sounded in the passage, from the exhortation to give "right honour to the heavenly Maker" to the mention of "that first accursed fall of Adam." But these references are keyed to rhetorical ends; the emphasis in the Apology is on man as the maker of images, not man as the image made. Acknowledgment of the Fall and the infected will does not draw the discussion into the orbit of theology—although diverging claims have been made for it as an indication of Sidney's Calvinism, Thomism, or semi-Pelagianism—so much as it advertises the way poetry can grant an argumentative edge over the "incredulous." If poetic fictions now seem, oddly enough, to assume the function of Anselm's "necessary reasons" in disputing with hypothetical unbelievers, that impression is only momentary. For we soon discover that the passage on the hierarchy of makers, despite multiple echoes of Genesis, is not an explication of faith; still less is it an objective account of the vertical structure of being.

9 A. E. Malloch, "'Architectonic' Knowledge and Sidney's Apologie," English Literary History 20 (1953): 181-85.

10 See discussion in chapter 4.

11 Ficino, "Five Questions Concerning the Mind," in Renaissance Philosophy of Man, ed. Ernst Cassirer et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 201-2. For an argument that Sidney's notion of poetic feigning may have been influenced by Ficino, see Cornell March Dowlin, "Sidney's Two Definitions of Poetry," Modern Language Quarterly 3 (1942): 579.

12 Sidney appears nonetheless to have been intrigued by geometry as a form of intellectual mastery and self-mastery. Languet admits its usefulness, but is concerned that it will exhaust Sidney's intellect and health. Sidney answers by including geometry as one of the "high and difficult objects" that free him from melancholy (The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, ed. and trans. Steuart Pears [London: William Pickering, 1845], pp. 28-29). Alastair Fowler's numerological analyses of Sidney's poems are of some interest in this regard, although I do not share his sense of Sidney's Neoplatonic grounding; see Fowler's Triumphal Forms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 174-80, and Conceitful Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1975), pp. 38-58.

13 Hathaway, Age of Criticism, p. 332.

14 Robinson, The Shape of Things Known, p. 118.

15 See Murray Wright Bundy. "'Invention' and 'Imagination' in the Renaissance," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 29 (1930): 535-45, and Baxter Hathaway, Marvels and Commonplaces : Renaissance Literary Criticism (New York: Random House, 1968), pp. 56, 121.

16 William Rossky, "Imagination in the English Renaissance: Psychology and Poetic," Studies in the Renaissance 5 (1958): 49-73.

17Arte of English Poesie, p. 19. Compare Puttenham's discussion of figurative speech as abuse and trespass: the "iudges Areopagites" forbade figurative speeches as "meere illusions to the minde" (p. 154). But see also the excellent discussion of Puttenham's pluralistic attitude toward rhetoric and illusionism in Lawrence Manley, Convention: 1500-1750 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 176-88.

18 Quoted by Rossky, "Imagination in the English Renaissance," p. 56.

19 Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism, p. 171.

20 For arguments that his radical insistence on the poet's free feigning sets Sidney apart from such Italian sources as Scaliger and Minturno, see Cornell March Dowlin, "Sidney and Other Men's Thought," Review of English Studies 20, no. 80 (1944): 257-71, and Hamilton, "Sidney's Idea of the 'Right Poet.'"

21 Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 1:31. By contrast, Jacob Bronowski has noted that in the Apology poetry appears to be straining in two directions at once, toward liberated ideality and a forced application to the concrete (The Poet's Defence [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939], pp. 39-56).

22 A. C. Hamilton, "Sidney and Agrippa," Review of English Studies 7, no. 26 (1956): 151-57. Similar claims are made in Hamilton's book on Spenser, cited in note 2.

23 Montaigne, Essays, trans. John Florio (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1938), 2: 244-45.

24 Kenneth Myrick, Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman (1935; reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 53-55.

25 There are several recent discussions of the disjunctions in Sidney's argument, sometimes refining the older question of the relative importance of Aristotelianism and Platonism for the Apology. See Michael Murrin, The Veil of Allegory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 184-89 for Sidney's witty and unclassifiable conflation of metaphysical and Neoclassical views, and O. B. Hardison, Jr., "The Two Voices of Sidney's Apology for Poetry," English LiteraryRenaissance 2 (Winter 1972): 83-99 for a possible shift in attitude by Sidney. "The Apology … was written in two phases…. Before a thorough revision was possible Sidney died (leaving the Apology) incompletely harmonized," Hardison writes (p. 98). For Sidney's eclecticism as a conscious rhetorical design, see Virginia Riley Hyman, "Sidney's Definition of Poetry," Studies in English Literature 10 (Winter 1970): 49-62, on Sidney as strategically selecting from his tradition; Catherine Barnes, "The Hidden Persuader: The Complex Speaking Voice of Sidney's Defence of Poetry," PMLA 96 (May 1971): 422-27, for the work's "'poetic' intricacy" (p. 426); and Margaret W. Ferguson, Trials of Desire: Renaissance Defenses of Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), chapter 4.

26 See chapter 4, note 46, above. See also Philip's advice to his brother to avoid "Ciceronianisme the cheife abuse of Oxford, Quidum verba sectantur, res ipsas negligunt" (The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat [1912; reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962], 3: 132).

27 Compare Cusanus's liberties in De coniecturis, where he sketches out a schematic World Soul and hierarchical cosmos after questioning them in De docta ignorantia, discussed in chapter 2.

28 Myrick, Sidney as Literary Craftsman, p. 298.

29Correspondence of Sidney and Languet, ed. and trans. Pears, p. 29.

30 Ibid., p. 20.

31 Ibid., p. 23.

32 Some of the discussion concerning this argument's first published version suggests the need for more specific clarification. I am not arguing that Sidney regards morality as ultimately divorced from ontology, or that he denies the final goodness of God's creation, but rather that he regards reliance upon such absolutes to justify human activities such as fiction making to be epistemologically untenable.


Sir Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry
Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella
De con.
Nicholas of Cusa, De coniecturis
Nicholas of Cusa, De docta ignorantia
Gammer Gurton's Needle
Sir Philip Sidney, New Arcadia
Sir Philip Sidney, Old Arcadia
Patrologia latina, ed. J. P. Migne
Sancti Anselmi opera omnia, ed. F. S. Schmitt
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica

Maureen Quilligan (essay date 1988)

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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 thirtyone.20 Before narrating the story of Sidney's tragic end in 1586, two years before the defeat of the Armada, [Sir Fulke] Greville outlines a map of his hero's imperial imagination in two chapters that encompass a remarkable analysis of the possible strategies open to England in what should have been, according to Greville's account of Sidney's thought, a concerted and strategic war with Spain. After canvassing all the political interconnections between such disparate parts of the map as Poland and the Ottoman Empire (Sidney's imperial politics are global), he settled, so Greville records, on taking the war with Spain to the New World. Sidney's intention was to plant England's empire on the mainland of America, thereby draining England of the excess population that threatened its stability while increasing trade, and hemming in Philip of Spain by cutting off his supply lines from the New World. On Greville's testimony, it would appear that the foundations of the British Empire were laid in Sir Philip Sidney's prophetic imagination.

Specifically, Sidney intended to revive the hazardous enterprise of "Planting upon the Main of America" (p. 117), a "new intended Plantation, not like an Assylum for fugitives … but as an Emporium for the confluence of all Nations that love, or profess any kinde of vertue, or Commerce" (pp. 118-19). [Page numbers refer to Greville's The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (London: Henry Seile, 1652).] The word "plant" takes on a special character in Greville's text, serving as a link in his narrative and contrasting the real politics of courtship, which Greville exposes in his analysis of his own, less heroically ideal life, with the heroic politics of his dead friend. Himself a much more successful courtier to Elizabeth than Sir Philip had been, Greville explains how his own success came to be: "I finding the specious fires of youth to prove far more scorching than glorious, called my second thoughts to counsell, and in that Map clearly discerning action and honor to fly with more wings than one; and that it was sufficient for the plant to grow where his Sovereigns hand had planted it; I found reason to contract my thoughts from those larger, but wandring horizons of the world abroad, and bound my prospect within the safe limits of duty, in such homes services, as were acceptable to my Sovereign" (p. 149). Greville would not plant America, but be a homegrown plant well-watered by his sovereign's hand. With his tragic death Sidney escaped such sad and resigned restrictions and sailed into history the most renowned member of his generation, as well as the most popular Elizabethan poet throughout the next century.21 In this assessment of his and his friend's lives, Greville reverses our usual sense of success and failure in court careers. Judged by the terms of the day, Greville was far more successful because he had been chosen by Elizabeth, whereby, in Sidney's own admission, the queen was always "apt … to interpret everything to my disadvantage" ([The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969)] 3:167); Greville, however, chooses to deprecate himself in relation to Sidney, who was not chosen and who could therefore remain independent, glorious, and heroic. For his own strategic purposes under James, Greville reverses the usual standard for evaluating a courtier's success: Sidney is to be judged not by what he accomplished, but by what he could have done, had his prince chosen him to do it.22

It may have been the same strategic purpose that inspired Greville to suppress any mention of Sidney's sonnet sequence—the work through which we of this century have best known him.23 Greville gives a full list of all of Sidney's other texts, stressing in particular Sidney's politically motivated translation of the Psalms and analyzing his didactic procedures in the revised Arcadia. Of course, his suppression of Astrophil and Stella—which had spawned innumerable copies, and indeed, on which he himself modeled his own sonnet cycle Caelica—may have been due simply to the cycle's precipitous drop from fashion after the death of Elizabeth. And here too Greville shows his sensitivity to strategies. If courtly compliment to a putative female reader had been fashionable at Elizabeth's court, it was distinctly not so under James, who had, not surprisingly, no taste for the form.24 Accordingly, although the sequence had been published in 1591, Greville neglects to include it in the oeuvre, possibly because it no longer had a recognizable political function.25 Its intense and circumscribed efflorescence allows us, however, to consider possible analogies in political function among four "court" episodes: a challenge on a tennis court, a conflictual conversation between a sovereign and subject at court, the contextualizing courting negotiations for a marriage match, and a Petrarchan sequence that displays the maneuverings of an attempted erotic seduction, that is, a "courtship." Yet before going on to consider Astrophil's peculiarly Elizabethan politics, we need to ask, what does the reduplication of language in all these various kinds of "courtships" have to say about the relations between language and social practice in Elizabethan England?

In another of his arguments, Bourdieu points to the defensive blindness of structural linguistics about the social context of the object it academically constructs. If language were as polysemous as linguistics would have it, "speech would be," according to Bourdieu, "an endless series of puns."26 Bourdieu objects to an artificial arena for language, an academic treatment of polysemy which specifically "breaks the organic relation between competence and the field"; such puns "are ungraspable in practice because production is always embedded in a field of reception…. One can only speak of the different meanings of a word so long as one bears in mind that their juxtaposition in the simultaneity of learned discourse (the page of the dictionary) is a scholarly artifact and that they never exist simultaneously in practice"—except, as Bourdieu allows, in actual puns (those produced for reception in the field). What such an interesting quarrel with contemporary linguistics points up is that the language of earlier eras was not so highly regulated as it is now and that, lacking dictionaries as we think of them and obviously in love with wordplay (if we are to trust Spenser's practice and Shakespeare's representations of courtly chat), the Elizabethan era is a most interesting one for attending to the practical possibilities of wordplay in the social field. Not only were there no dictionaries in Elizabeth's era, save for books giving English equivalents of Latin words (or other foreign languages) and definitions of technical (or "hard") words, there were also no rules by which to censure the pun as transgressive. The simultaneity of meaning that marks a pun may not have been so odd and out of the ordinary then as now.27 What this means for a reading of sixteenth-century language is that not only must we attend to the polysemy of its texts—the punning potential of a word whose meaning would probably have been heard and seen by Elizabethan ears and eyes much more readily than by our far differently trained organs of perception—but that we must also attempt to hear the social resonance of wordplay as well. The simultaneity of meaning in a pun might provide a social as well as a verbal or poetic strategy. Read in these terms, the sonnet sequence Sidney wrote becomes a social practice that addresses relations of real power and does so through the most ostensibly textual of verbal manipulations: the pun.

In his edition of Sidney's poetry, after reviewing the fascinating biographical and political context of Astrophil and Stella, William Ringler summarizes,

When we compare the known facts of Sidney's life during the years 1581-82 with the sonnets, we are immediately struck with how much of his biography he left out of his poems. He tells us nothing about the disappointment of his hopes in being superseded as the Earl of Leicester's heir, nothing about his trip to Antwerp, nothing about his dominating interest in politics and international affairs … and most significant, nothing about his activities in opposition to the proposed marriage of the Duke of Anjou and the Queen. The sonnets concern courtship, and yet they do not contain a single hint of the attempts being made at the time he was writing to marry him to Stella's sister, Dorothy Devereux, or of his own interest in the same time in Frances Walsingham.28

In fact, Sidney did ultimately marry Frances Walsingham, and she, after his death, married the earl of Essex, the brother of Penelope Devereux—that is, of Stella. Prior to his marriage, Sidney had been disinherited by the birth of son to his uncle the earl of Leicester and his uncle's new wife, the countess of Essex-Cthat is, Penelope/Stella's mother. Sidney had been expecting to inherit from his uncle should Leicester die childless. It had been in part the cachet of being Leicester's heir—that is, heir to Elizabeth's most powerful favorite—that had made Sidney so welcome on the Continent, where Dutch and German princes wanted to marry him to their daughters.

Arthur Marotti has pointedly stressed the immediate historical context of Sidney's authorship of the sequence: "when Sidney wrote the sonnets (or gathered them into a sequence), he was and he was known as a politically, economically and socially disappointed young man."29 According to Marotti, "love is not love" in Astrophil and Stella but rather Sidney's attempted reorganization of his humiliating experience as a failed courtier: the sequence "wittily converts the language of ambition into the language of love" (p. 402). The problem, as Marotti sees it, was that a private courtship finally provides "no compensation for sociopolitical defeat," especially because the sequence merely stages "a painful repetition of the experience in another mode" (p. 405). In this interpretation, Sidney is no more successful as a lover than he was as a courtier: ultimately he is denied his lady's favor.

What such an otherwise brilliant rereading of the sequence as Marotti's leaves out are the strategic possibilities open to Sidney upon his decision to write a Petrarchan sequence. A paradoxical strategy of sexual domination is one of the more intriguing interests of Petrarchan poetry; as Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass summarize it, "although the lover depicts himself as humble suitor to a dominating lady, he actually performs an act of public mastery, demonstrating his virtuosity in the practice of a masculine convention."30 Thus, while the language of love into which Sidney translates his political frustrations was perfect for the problem, it was not, as they point out, unpolitical to begin with: "the inequality of the servant … to his master …, the inequality of the subordinated sex … to the dominant sex…. The blurring of these two discourses is the method by which Astrophil can continue to maneuver without too blunt a naming of unequal positions. He is concerned, indeed, not so much to alter the categories as to manipulate them so as to redistribute power" (p. 60). The overt plot of the sequence in which Stella denies Astrophil any final fulfillment (although the eighth song allows us to guess at more) may repeat Sidney's public defeat in politics, but, by the same token, it is the author's total control over Stella as a (silent) character in his plot which enacts his masculine, social mastery. Such a redistribution of power is at issue in any sonnet sequence (as in any honor challenge). What makes Sidney's sequence different is the remarkable historical specificity with which it attempts this distribution.

The signal point of interconnection between poetic text and cultural context is that Sidney distinctly identifies Stella as Penelope Devereux. He does so, moreover, by punning on her husband's name. To do so is to name Stella specifically in terms of the traffic in women, a procedure that may have carried for Sidney the complicated history of Penelope Devereux's involvement in that quite circumscribed traffic, since she had once earlier been named as a possible bride for him. The certainty of this historical identification makes Sidney's sequence unique: while—pace A. L. Rowse—we will never know who Shakespeare's Dark Lady is, or resolve doubts about Rosalind and Elizabeth Boyle in the Amoretti, or at this late date discover the identity of Laura, we do know, absolutely, that Stella is Lady Rich.31 If we pause for a moment to ask why the identification is through her husband's name rather than her own, we can see how the word "Rich" and the meanings it sustains in the sonnets not only names for Sidney his various sociopolitical failures, it offers a strategy for revaluing them. One could imagine a whole series of poems that might have identified Penelope Devereux in other ways just as certainly—to take only one possibility, in terms of her mythically resonant name, Penelope. Having previously named himself Philisides (Philip Sidney) in the character of the Arcadian poet, Sidney here signals a similar identification by the name Astrophil, which is properly spelled with the "i," for it takes a syllable from "Philip." What is, after all, in a name?

Is Stella Lady Rich because Penelope Devereux was the daughter of the woman whose giving birth to a son impoverished (disenriched) Sidney? Is she Lady Rich because her married name is the word for what Sidney thereby lost? Or is it that, by ironizing the name, Sidney avails himself of a poetic strategy that will allow him to claim his title as an autonomous author of his individual destiny, revaluing and enriching his career in his own terms?

The notion of richness contained in Stella's real, historical name, offers Sidney not merely the chance to identify her (and therefore to indicate the dynastic disappointment her mother's bearing a son to his uncle had caused him) but also the chance to query the issue of value itself, as Elizabethan society understood it to work in various social discourses. Stella is "rich" in courtly reputation (achieved value), in her virtually royal nobility of character (class, or ascribed value), in religious spirituality (eternal crowns are better than earthly); she also has "patents," that is, monopolies, on the market in "true worldly bliss." Her only misfortune is that she is married to a dolt.32 The dolt's name, however, allows Sidney to redefine his own poverty: "now long needy Fame / Doth even grow rich, naming my Stellas name" (Sonnet 35). How such a private revaluation of his sense of himself—no longer a defamed courtier, but a poet famously inspired by loveCwill affect that public career becomes an issue in the poems themselves.

"Art not asham'd to publish thy disease?"
Nay, that may breed my fame, it is so rare:
"But will not wise men thinke thy words fond ware?"
Then be they close, and so none shall displease.
"What idler thing, then speake and not be hard?"
What harder thing then smart, and not to speake?
(Sonnet 34)

Sidney's worry about publication here not only alerts us to the problematic position Petrarchan writing occupied at the time Sidney wrote (it would be thought fond ware), but it also makes clear that the privileged audience for the sonnets is not Stella herself, but the "wise men" who would probably find the poems foolish. Not to be heard by them, it appears, is not to be heard at all. The sonnets were in fact kept close, circulated to only the smallest coterie of readers, apparently kept closer than Sidney's other poetry.33 So it would appear that Sidney held to his decision not to publish; hence any argument that would claim that Sidney expected to make up for his dynastic disappointments and answer the court's murmurings specifically about his ambition (which he denies in sonnets 23, 27, and 30) by stunning them with his exquisitely displayed folly in love is certainly not one that would work for Sidney in his lifetime. In order for him to achieve a display of "public mastery," as Jones and Stallybrass suggest, the poems need to have become public—as, of course, they did after his death. The first audience for the poems was, apparently, only his immediate family, in fact those who would have been most disappointed by his failures and to whom a palliative set of excuses might have been most welcome. Indeed, he may never have intended to publish—that is to circulate in any way—Astrophil and Stella. (His brother Robert gave few clues as to the existence of his own poems, which were not published until 1984 from a single autograph manuscript.34) However, it is helpful, in evaluating just how useful a strategy the sequence could have been in Sidney's overall career, to remember that he did not live to implement it. He died accidentally only four years after he wrote it. It is therefore a bit hasty to dismiss the sequence as actual social strategy because it made no difference in Sidney's life. As imaginary poetic (and potentially social) strategy it does indeed stage a recuperation of competitive authority among court wits and poetasters and manages a nostalgic recapture of class rank.

Note, for example, that Sidney's address in Sonnet 37, in which he names Stella as Penelope Rich, is "Listen Lordings with good eare to me / For of my life I must a riddle tell." Doubtless an allusion to Chaucer's even then archaic oral stance, such an address asserts the high old, aristocratic rank Sidney ascribes to his poems by way of their imagined audience. Aurora's court, where Sidney enthrones Stella, is like the more valued courts of old. There such lordings are interpreters, as well, who will figure the riddle of the name; sympathetic readers unlike, presumably, the censorious auditors of a present-day court.

Other subjects of address (his fellow poets) are not necessarily high in birth rank, but, as poets, Astrophil can lecture them on the value of their own poetic endeavors. If speaking and not being "hard" is less hard than not speaking, speaking and being heard by an imaginary audience who will be daunted by the value of one's speech is remarkably easy.

How falles it them, that with so smooth an ease
My thoughts I speake, and what I speake doth flow

In verse, and that my verse best wits doth please?
Guess we the cause: "What, is it thus?" Fie no:
"Or so?" Much lesse: "How then?" Sure thus it is:
My lips are sweet inspired, with Stella's kisse.
(Sonnet 74)

In imagining the circulation of his poems, Sidney imagines his own socially recognized mastery. As a textual battleground, the poems compete not only with Spenser, Greville, Dyer, Sidney's own brother Robert, or prior court poets in the English tradition such as Wyatt and Surrey, who had used Petrarch's mode for similar court-serving ends; his rivals extend to all the male Continental practitioners of the sequence. That Oxford was known as a versifier might have some immediate significance; so too, Elizabeth was known to try her hand at poetry. Because Sidney's sequence specifically concerned an adulterous and unidealized passion (as Petrarch's did not), it would have made a commanding scandal in Elizabeth's court. That it was not addressed to the queen, in the midst of a prevailing fashion for courtly compliment of her, may have been its most pointed aggression against her central authority. He would not play politics by her rules but would turn her Petrarchan forms to his own purposes.35

Sidney makes a bid for poetic fame by denying such poetic ambition, just as he denies his political ambition: "Stella thinke not that I by verse seeke fame, / Who seeke, who hope, who love, who live but thee"; in this poem, he eschews as well a specific Petrarchan prominence indicated by the pun on Laura/laurel: "Nor so ambitious am I, as to frame / A nest for my yong praise in Lawrell tree." Sidney abjures the very name of poet: "In truth I sweare, I wish not there should be / Graved in mine Epitaph a Poet's name" (Sonnet 90). The name with which he consistently ends his poems is hers, Stella. And she, of course, is—so the historical identification says—more than a mere sign of his poetic fame, as Petrarch's pun on Laura/laurel implies. Unlike other mistresses of that tradition, Stella is real and identified, and Astrophil insists that his passion is no mere motive for verse making. Stella thus is not merely the sign of his poetic originality and authority, but of Sidney's problematical historical situation. He turns his Petrarchan abasement into authority, manipulating a character, Stella, who allows him to woo, conquer, and be rejected, and, by his manipulation of that rejection, discursively to control his own recent misfortunes in his career. His Petrarchan abasement changes his rank, from a vulgarity the muses would never visit ("Muses scorne with vulgar braines to dwell") to a private ease of nobility predicated on a kiss; it grants him, if only in his text, the power to make her say what he wants her to, as in the refrain to the fourth song:

Take me to thee, and thee to me.
"No, no, no, no, my Deare, let be."

Wo to me, and do you sweare
Me to hate? But I forbeare,
Cursed be my destines all,
That brought me so high to fall:
Soone with my death I will please thee.
"No, no, no, no my Deare, let be."

Such a strategy turns traditional abasement into one kind of authority, in the process fulfilling the demands Sidney made on his countrymen in the Apology, to write as if they really were in love.36

Paying tribute, in humble manner though not in matter, to the imperative of erotic desire, Sidney obliquely claims his own political importance. Thus in Sonnet 30, he lists all the thorny diplomatic problems facing the Elizabethan ruling elite: will the Ottoman Empire make another attack on Christian Europe, what of Polish-Russian relations, what will happen in the French wars of religion, how will the prince of Orange's rebellion fare in the Netherlands, how will the Irish rebels take recent victories by his father, what will Scotland do? "These questions busie wits to me do frame; / I, cumbred with good maners, answer do, / But know not how, for still I think of you" (Sonnet 30). As Marotti acutely notes, this is the first time that Stella is directly addressed in the sequence (p. 401). The poem puts her (and privacy) directly in contrast to, and superior in value to, the affairs of court and state that her very important lover finds cumbering his public life. In opting for a different kind of courtship, private erotic suitorship, Sidney chooses a different kind of fame. Hereby rewriting his political frustrations, imposed from above by a queen jealous of the prerogatives he as a courtier had very insistently resisted, Sidney claims that the choice not to be a famous statesman was his own. His strategy here, to make his lack of preferment look like his own choice, by shifting the place of conflict away from the real court into his own psychic battles with honor and duty and desire, has certain costs. It is enslavement not to a queen—as Greville chose, letting himself be planted where his sovereign's hand would place him—but enslavement to Stella, a nineteen-year-old wife of a courtly cipher, whose name played ironically on the riches Sidney had, in any case, already lost.

What was Stella like? Greville consistently calls Sidney the "unattended Cassandra of his age," and—if we understand the underlying politics of the sequence as a subtle resistance to the queen—we may note that Sidney's selection of Penelope Rich for his Stella was not only punningly appropriate to his predicament, it was in time to prove itself prophetically so. Years later, Penelope Devereux was evidently very instrumental in her brother, the earl of Essex's, uprising against Elizabeth. At his interrogation, Essex rather ungallantly blamed his sister for helping to instigate his attack on the queen: "my sister … did continually urge me on with telling me how all my friends and followers thought me a coward, & that I had lost all my valour…. She must be looked to, for she had a proud spirit."37 At the time of his uprising, Essex was married to Frances Walsingham, Sidney's widow. Brother of the woman for whom Sidney had famously written he'd given up all, husband to Sidney's wife—Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, may not have done what he did because he inherited Sidney's intransigence along with his wife and sword (which Sidney had willed him). But Essex can stand as emblem of the resistance potentially present in the dynastic faction (cemented by the traffic in women) for whom Sidney had earlier been spokesman. Penelope Devereux is without doubt Astrophil's Stella. She is also without doubt the only woman we know to have urged her brother to rebel against Queen Elizabeth.

At age eighteen, of course, recently departed from a virtuous upbringing at her home with the Huntingtons and married to a rich heir the same year that Elizabeth contemplated marrying the duke of Anjou, Sidney's Penelope Devereux Rich would not have been, when Sidney wrote, the rebel to all propriety and authority she turned out to be. However, only two years after Sidney's death, some six years after the sequence was written, she took up at age twenty-six with a veteran of Zutphen, Sir Charles Blount, with whom she had a total of five illegitimate children.38 She also showed herself more loyal to Sidney's brother Robert than her own brother was and risked censure to aid him.39 It is, of course, dangerous to judge how well Astrophil and Stella may have served Sidney by how favorably Penelope Rich received its identification with her and how little she apparently paid for any of her own transgressions against honor or authority.40 Sidney, for his part, counted up his costs:

Sidney died bankrupt and in debt; not until the very end of his life did he regain that heritage of service to the crown which his father and uncle had enjoyed. In the meantime, the knowledge he had, he spent on toys like the Arcadia and Astrophil and Stella. Sonnet 18 implies that, like some glorious Anthony, he is happy to destroy himself, a world well-lost for love. But he also confesses that he wished he had more to lose. He desires not only Stella but also all the riches, fame, and achievement he would happily throw away for her.

To see that, in such ambiguous balanced couplets as this last, Sidney manages to have it both ways is to see the overall strategy of the sequence. If he never, as Greville confessed, "was Magistrate, nor possessed of any fit stage for eminence to act upon," and even if his life was short and his fortunes private, yet there are—as Greville hopes—"lines to be drawn, not Astronomicall, or imaginary, but reall lineaments … out of which nature often sparkleth brighter rayes in some, than ordinarily appear in the ripeness of others" (pp. 38-41). If Sir Philip Sidney was denied his stage not only by the queen's abiding mistrust but by his early death, he yet left the lines in which he claims he authored his own ruined career. While Greville obviously felt the sequence needed to be suppressed, preferring an unpreferred statesman to a preeminent poet, Sidney's own legend for himself told a different story. Of course, he did not die of passion, or of Petrarchan poetics. He died, in fact, of Protestant politicsCand his own, not the queen's (the same Protestant politics that would harry James, and behead Charles). If we have to work this hard to retrieve that simple fact about his life, our difficulty is testimony to how thoroughly Sidney's self-creation as poet-lover has prevailed over Greville's legend of soldier-statesman. We need to read the politics back into the poetry not only to see that the politics are indeed embedded there but also to perceive how well Sidney's strategy of mystification succeeded. While it is not true that he threw over a blossoming career as courtier/statesman to become a love-struck poet, it is true that he did not succeed at winning either of his ladies' favor, neither Stella's or the queen's, because he refused to play by their rules of "tyran honor."

For finally, the poems are filled with the strategies of such a rich authority that to challenge that authority and give its author, as he did Oxford, the lie, risks making the critic too much of a cynic. If puppies are begotten by dogs, and children by men, it is useful to realize that poets still author, if not the entirety of their political lives, then at least the most powerful legends about them.41


20 Sidney placed such Protestant politics, his "love of the caws" [cause], as he put it, above his desire to please the queen, to be safe, rich, and graced by her favor. In a most revealing letter, Sidney confesses to his father-in-law that his radical Protestant activism, his very self, is more important to him than her favor. Elizabeth was perhaps very wise when she refused to reward such lack of devotion.

I had before cast my court of dang[er] want and disgrace, and before God Sir it is trew [that] in my hart the love of the caws doth so far over-ballance them all that with Gods grace thei shall never make me weery of my resolution. If her Majesty wear the fowntain I woold fear considiring what I daily fynd that we shold wax dry, but she is but a means whom God useth and I know not whether I am deceaved but I am faithfully persuaded that if she shold with draw her self other springes woold ryse to help this action. For me thinkes I see the great work indeed in hand, against the abusers of the world, wherein it is not greater fault to have confidence in mans power, then it is to hastily to despair of God work. I think a wyse and constant man ought never to greev whyle he doth plai as a man mai sai his own part truly though othgers be out but if him self leav his hild becaws other marriners will be ydle he will hardli forgive him self this own fault. For me I can not promise of my own cource no nor of the my[ ] because I know there is a hyer power that must uphold me or els I shall fall, but certainly I trust, I shall not by other mens wantes be drawn from my self…. I understand I am called very ambitious and prowd at home, but certainly if thei knew my hart thei woold not altogether so judge me. (Works 3: 166-67)

21 Sidney's works went through nine editions in the next century, while Spenser had only three editions and Shakespeare four; of them all, only Sidney was translated into foreign languages, including French, German, Dutch, and Italian. See Ringler, Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, p. 440.

22 Ronald A. Rebholz, The Life of Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 211-16, discusses Greville's "self-centered" account and argues that he depresses his worth to elevate Sidney's and with it his own in relation to the age of James.

23 The recent publication of the two versions of the Arcadia in accessible paperback format may change our sense of Sidney's achievement from poetry to proseCa distinction, of course, he held to be moot.

24 Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 23-24, traces James's own anti-Petrarchan poets and contrasts James and Elizabeth's styles of self-presentation.

25 See Tennenhouse, Power on Display, p. 34, and Louis A. Montrose, "Of Gentlemen and Shepherds: The Politics of Elizabethan Pastoral Forms," ELH 50 (1983): 441-48, for comment on the political function Petrarchism had during the reign of Elizabeth.

26 Pierre Bourdieu, "The Economics of Linguistics Exchanges," tr. Richard Nice, Social Science Information 16 (1977): 545-68.

27 I am indebted to Margreta DeGrazia for suggesting the possible ordinariness of the pun to me. In "Prelexical Possibilities in Shakespeare's Language," a paper delivered to the Shakespeare Association of America, March 1985, DeGrazia specifically argues that none of the rhetorical figures that name wordplay of various sorts (syllepsis, antanaclasis, paranomasia, significatio, traductio) describe what we postdictionary readers and speakers identify as a pun—that is, two separate words that are spelled and spoken identically. Sixteenth-century logic maunals do discuss the homonym but define it as "one word that signifieth diverse things," a very different sense from ours; as DeGrazia puts it "what a prelexical age considers one word, a postlexical age considers two or more words." According to the OED, the term "pun" was first used in 1660.

28 Ringler, Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, p. 447.

29 Arthur F. Marotti, "'Love Is Not Love': Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order, ELH (1982): 396-428; hereafter cited in the text.

30 Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, "The Politics of Astrophil and Stella," SEL 24 (1984): 53-68. See also Nancy J. Vickers, "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme," Critical Inquiry 8 (Winter 1981): 265-79.

31 For a discussion of Laura's uncertain identity, see Robert M. Durling, Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. iv.

32 A dependent of his wife's powerful brother the earl of Essex, Rich acquiesced in his wife's later long-term liaison with Sir Charles Blount, yet he did not remain loyal to Essex's followers when the earl was executed for treason. As Ringler puts it, "he was zealous in religion and affected the air of a Puritan, but like Malvolio he was more of a 'time-pleaser' than anything else" (Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, p. 445).

33 Marotti, "Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences," p. 406. Poems from the sequence do not appear in contemporaries' manuscript collections until after Sidney's death, while other poems of his come into these miscellanies earlier. Ringler notes that Sir John Harington copied eight poems by Sidney into his collection. He himself first copied "Certain Sonnets 3" (on fol. 34), and then Song 10 from Astrophil and Stella (on fol. 36v). As Ringler notes, Harington apparently did not know that Stella was Lady Rich at the time he first copied the poem, because he headed it "Sr Philip Syd: to the bewty of the worlde"; subsequently, he copied Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1 (on fol. 155) and headed the poem "Sonnets of Sr Philip Sydneys vppon to ye Lady Ritch." It is fascinating to see Harington hesitate in his designation of Penelope Devereux's relationship to the first poem. Is she its subject ("upon") or its addressee ("to")? Harington's confusion about how to state the relationship of the real, historical Stella to the poem (which does not, in fact, address her) nicely demonstrates the unstable position of the female with respect to the male poet of the Petrarchan tradition, an instability just as problematic for sixteenth-century as for later readers.

34 P. J. Croft, The Poems of Robert Sidney (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

35 Sir Walter Ralegh owed his later prominence as favorite to his cultivation of the cult of Elizabeth; his fragmentary "Cynthia" may stand as testimony to his sense (however disproved) that direct address in poetry could win back the queen's favor. Sidney addressed no poem to Elizabeth, save for The Lady of May.

36 Sidney's actual marriage to Sir Francis Walsingham's daughter Frances (when Sidney was age thirty and she sixteen) does not seem to have been based on love, for it obeyed all the tenets of a patriarchal match, save one: Queen Elizabeth, official patriarch of her society, was not notified. When the queen objected that she had not been asked her approval of this signal traffic in women, Walsingham explained that, the principals being of such low birth, he had not thought it necessary to obtain her permission. The maneuver is so like the suppression of Elizabeth's remarks about the choice of a husband for the Lady of May, one cannot help but wonder if the source was the same. Once again the hierarchy can be manipulated from below.

37 Ringler, Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, p. 443.

38 Interspersed between the first two children Penelope Devereux bore Blount was the birth of the final child she had with Lord Rich (in all, she bore the two men ten children). She was accepted by both the courts of Elizabeth and James as Blount's official mistress until the two illicitly got married after her divorce from Rich in 1605. Only after they were married were she and Blount ostracized. William Laud, who performed the ceremony and later became archbishop, kept the wedding anniversary, according to Ringler, as a day of penance (Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, pp. 445-46).

39 Both Lady Rich and Frances Walsingham helped Robert Sidney during his period of political unpopularity when even Essex had dropped his support; see Croft, Poems of Robert Sidney, p. 83. Walsingham's father also had a hand in arranging Robert's marriage against Elizabeth's express wishes (pp. 70-71).

40 Until Penelope married Blount, she never suffered any punishments, either for her adulterous liaison or for her loyal support of her brother or of Robert Sidney. Marrying only to legitimate their children (as Blount had himself succeeded to an earldom), she was punished for this transgression only; no more than Elizabeth could she bestow herself where she might wish.

41 I am grateful to Richard Strier for this final formulation as well as for other suggestions, clarifications, and corrections.

Richard C. McCoy (essay date 1989)

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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 side."1 When drawing up their own pedigree, the Sidneys employed their distinguished relative's herald, Robert Cooke, who obliged them with characteristic creativity. Cooke began by preparing a bogus genealogical roll tracing the descent of a fictive William de Sydney down to the fourteenth century, which he in turn used as "evidence" for the genealogy he presented as his own—the initial forgery "written on a narrow strip of parchment, which is in a very brittle state. The discoloured appearance of the parchment and the character of the handwriting suggest an attempt to feign antiquity for the Roll; which must have in fact been written little before 1580."2 Cooke's forgery apparently worked, flattering as it was to the Sidneys' ancestral pride.

Philip's own ancestral pride was particularly fierce, and he was aroused to almost fanatical anger by the slanders leveled against his uncle in Leicester's Commonwealth, a book combining reportage on factional maneuvers at court with expert character assassination of the Earl of Leicester. Leicester's Commonwealth was published anonymously in Paris in 1584, and Elizabeth's government tried to suppress the book in England, but its circulation in manuscript did grave and lasting damage to Robert Dudley, darkening his reputation even to the present day.3 He was accused of murder, treason, adultery, and atheism, among other heinous crimes, but the attack most galling to Sidney was aimed at Dudley's lack of long-standing nobility. According to Leicester's Commonwealth, Dudley's father was a "buck of the first head," or the first noble of his line, and Leicester himself had aroused the hatred of the "ancient nobility" by his efforts to supplant them.4 Stung by this slur on "my dead ancestors,"5 Sidney wrote a Defence of the Earl of Leicester, a tract he apparently planned to publish. Taking his father's admonition to heart, Sidney declares, "I am a Dudley in blood, that Duke's daughter's son, and do acknowledge, though in all truth I may justly affirm that I am by my father's side of ancient and always well esteemed and well matched gentry, yet I do acknowledge, I say, that my chiefest honour is to be a Dudley, and truly am glad to have cause to set forth the nobility of that blood whereof I am descended, which, but upon so just cause, without vain glory could not have been uttered: since no man but this fellow of invincible shamelessness would ever have called so palpable a matter in question."6 Relying in part on the pedigree Robert Cooke prepared for Leicester in 1583, Sidney traces the Dudleys' descent from such venerable families as the Beauchamps, the Talbots, and the Grays.7 The Defence of the Earl of Leicester concludes with a dramatic but futile chivalric gesture. The impassioned defender of family honor challenges his anonymous adversary to a duel within three months' time: "But to thee I say: thou therein liest in thy throat, which I will be ready to justify upon thee in any place of Europe, where thou wilt assign me a free place of coming, as within three months after the publishing hereof I may understand thy mind."8 Sidney's vehemence abated, and cooler heads evidently prevailed; the Defence of the Earl of Leicester was never published, the challenge never promulgated, and the identity of the author of Leicester's Commonwealth never revealed.9

Some of Sidney's earliest writings were also linked to the Earl of Leicester, and these too met with a dubious reception. The Lady of May was a masque devised to entertain the Queen during a visit to Leicester's estate at Wanstead in 1578. The masque concerned that perennial subject of Leicester's entertainments, the marriage question, but here the topic may have figured Leicester's martial rather than marital ambitions. In this case, the Queen was asked to choose between two suitors for the May Lady's hand—a virile and active forester, and a cautious and passive shepherd. Sidney seems to favor the exuberant forester, Therion, and the final song celebrates the triumph of the forest god, Silvanus, over Pan.10 In 1578 Leicester and his faction were promoting an activist foreign policy by urging military intervention in the Netherlands.11 Elizabeth found such a course too risky, and her choice of the prudent shepherd may have been a deliberate rebuff to Leicester and his nephew.

Sidney subsequently tried to address the Queen more directly on the subject of marriage, and he met with no more success. In 1579 it appeared that Elizabeth might finally accept the Duke of Alençon, younger brother to the King of France, as a husband. Good Protestants were horrified and their views of the marriage were publicized in a tract entitled "The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf whereunto England is like to be swallowed by another French marriage, if the Lord forbid not the banns by letting her Majesty see the sin and Punishment thereof." The author, John Stubbs, and his printer had their right hands cut off as punishment. Sidney boldly entered the controversy with a letter addressed "To Queen Elizabeth, Touching her Marriage with Monsieur." He probably also served as his uncle's spokesman on this occasion, but his own aversion to Alençon and his mother, Catherine de Médicis, were rooted in the latter's role in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, an event Sidney witnessed during his first visit to the Continent. His distrust of this "Frenchman, and a Papist … the son of the Jezebel of our age," was already deeply ingrained.12 In his letter Sidney declares his "unfeigned love" for the Queen, but he warns her that her subjects' love was always conditional: "Virtue and justice are the only bands of the people's love. And as for that point, many princes have lost their crowns, whose own children were manifest successors."13 It is an extraordinary threat, one that could hardly endear the author to the Queen. Sidney's politesse and higher status may have spared him the fate of John Stubbs, but almost all advice on marriage was offensive to the Queen.14

Shortly after he wrote the letter, Sidney confronted the Queen directly in an extraordinary showdown on the rights of subjects—rights he asserted by resorting to "the rites of knighthood." A quarrel with the Earl of Oxford over the use of a tennis court led to a formal challenge to a duel. The Privy Council intervened to block it, but Sidney insisted on following through, so the Queen herself interceded. Elizabeth sought to put him in his place, according to Sir Fulke Greville. In the latter's admiring account of this event, the Queen tries to remind Sidney of "the difference between earls and gentlemen; the respect inferiors ought to their superiors," but Sidney retorts "that place was never intended for privilege to wrong."15 Greville declared that Sidney established here "a latitude for subjects to reserve native and legal freedom by paying humble tribute in manner, though not in matter, to them." In his own life, however, he was both more tractable and more successful in his relations with the monarch; indeed, for himself, he finally doubted "whether there be any latitude left—more than humble obedience—in these nice cases between duty and selfness in a sovereign's service."16 Sidney also had to yield to his sovereign's authority and forgo the duel, and shortly afterward he withdrew to his sister's estate at Wilton.

In 1581 Sidney tried a somewhat different approach to courtly politics, now that he was determined to play more strictly by its rules. His New Year's gift to the Queen was a diamond-studded whip, the perfect token of courtly discourse. Instead of straightforward exhortation, he employs a device as ambiguous as Dudley's impresa shield, subtly suggesting both submission and resentment. He resumed an active public life as a member of Parliament and a frequent performer in court spectacle, participating in three tournaments and two marriage pageants. The grandest of these was The Four Foster Children of Desire, an entertainment combining tilting with an allegorical assault on "The Fortress of Perfect Beauty," the gallery housing the Queen. The four challengers, or "foster children," were the Earl of Arundel, Lord Windsor, Sir Fulke Greville, and Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney was the challengers' standard bearer because his men wore the "poesie, or sentence" justifying their assault, and the dramatic idea behind the tournament was probably his.17 In organizing this spectacular chivalric fete, Sidney was following his uncle's lead. His magnificent entry is described in an account of the tournament published shortly afterward:

Then proceeded M. Philip Sidney, in very sumptuous maner, with armor part blewe, & the rest gilt & engraven, with foure spare horses, having caparisons and furniture veri riche & costly, as some of cloth of gold embroidred with pearle, and some embrodred with gold and silver feathers, very richly & cunningly wrought, he had foure pages that rode on his four spare horses, who had cassock coats & venetian hose al of cloth of silver, layd with gold lace, & hats of the same with golde bands, and white fethers, and eache one a paire of white buskins. Then had he a thirtie gentlemen and yeomen, & foure trumpetters, who were all in cassocke coats and venetian hose of yellow velvet, laid with silver lace, yellowe velvet caps with silver bands and white fethers, and every one a paire of white buskins. And they had uppon their coates, a scrowle or bande of silver, which came scarfewise over the shoulder, and so downe under the arme, with this poesie, or sentence written upon it, both before and behinde, Sic nos non nobis.18

Sidney's entry, with its four trumpeters, a page, and a liveried entourage of thirty, seems as extravagantly selfaggrandizing, and the siege as aggressive, as any of his uncle's performances. Nevertheless, their styles are significantly different.

The Four Foster Children of Desire addresses the issue of marriage more subtly and deferentially than Sidney's earlier works. The show begins with a comically innocuous attack on the Queen's gallery by a wooden and canvas "Rowling trench" (FFC, p. 68). Musicians concealed within this contraption "cunningly conveyed divers kinde of most excellent musicke against the castle of Beauty" (p. 69). After the "trench or Mounte of earth was mooved as nere the Queenes Majestie as might be" (p. 71), two of Sidney's songs were sung, the first by a boy imploring the Queen to "Yeelde, Yeelde, o Yeelde" and the second by another, representing the defenders, defying their assault.19 Afterward, "two Canons were shott off, the one with sweet powder, and the other with sweete water, very odoriferous and pleasaunt, and the noyse of the shooting was very excellent consent of mellodie within the Mounte: And after that, was store of prettie scaling ladders, and the footemen threwe Flowers and such fancies against the walles, with all such devices as might seeme fit shot for Desire" (pp. 72-73). The device evokes the symbolically erotic associations of siege warfare as well as earlier Tudor pageants of Beauty and Desire, including Henry VIII's masque of "Ardent Desire," in which Anne Boleyn made her debut, and Dudley's Christmas revels at the beginning of Elizabeth's reign. In both of these earlier shows, however, the siege was successful, and the masque concluded with a dance uniting the lady with the triumphant knight. In The Four Foster Children of Desire the challengers' aggression is muted, and their siege fails. The Fortress of Perfect Beauty proves "Impregnable" (p. 82), and they graciously concede defeat.

The position of the foster children is ambiguous from the beginning. They are, first of all, plaintive children rather than domineering suitors, and they desire only to be fostered, or nursed. This figure is one of Sidney's most striking, first appearing in Certain Sonnet 6, where Desire is a baby crying for pap, and beauty is a nurse whose care fails to satisfy. The figure is reworked in Astrophil and Stella 71, where "Desire still cries give me some food" and fails to obtain it. In both instances Desire is more helpless than aggressive. The foster children are also virtuously submissive, although their adversaries do not understand this. The Queen's defenders compare her to the sun and accuse the foster children of seeking their own gain in their assault on her castle: "Sir Knights, if in besieging the sunne, ye understood what you had undertaken, ye would not destroye a common blessing for a private benefit" (FFC, p. 75). The defenders urge them to "desist, sithe it is impossible to resist, content your selves with the sunnes indifferent succor" (p. 75). They do in fact desist, showing themselves capable of the altruism demanded of the true lover in Astrophil and Stella 61:

That who indeed infelt affection beares,
So captives to his Saint both soule and sence,

That wholly hers, all selfnesse he forbeares,
Thence his desires he learnes, his live's course thence.

However, they have announced their virtuous self-denial from the tournament's start. The "poesie, or sentence" worn by Sidney's entourage declares "Sic nos non nobis": "we [do or act] thus not for ourselves" (FFC, p. 70).

The righteous pathos of the challengers is one of the central points of the complex allegory of The Four Foster Children of Desire. At one level, the challengers' surrender can be seen as a tactful apology for the presumptuous interference in the Queen's marriage choice by Sidney and Leicester. At the same time, the tournament, which was devised for the entertainment of the French ambassadors, slyly denies the Queen to Alençon and every other suitor now that Leicester is out of the running, for Alençon must also content himself "with the sun's indifferent succor."20 Finally, the allegory delicately hints at the political constraints on the Queen. She has no choice regarding a husband because "when Beawtie yeeldeth once to desire, then can she never vaunt to be desired again" (p. 80). Desire persists only as long as it is unrequited. By the middle of Elizabeth's reign the familiar romantic paradox had acquired an inescapable political significance for her as she rejected the last serious candidate for her hand.

Running through all these compliments is an undertone of resentment felt by those who cry futilely for succor. Patronage is the issue figured by this metaphor of fosterage. Sir Robert Naunton uses the same metaphor to describe the demands of the Earl of Essex, saying he "drew in fast like a child sucking on a uberous breast."21 Uberous, linked to udder, means rich, full, and abundant, but in practice, Elizabeth seldom proved especially "uberous" to those dependent on her. Sir Francis Bacon remarks instead on "her wonderful art in keeping servants in satisfaction, and yet in appetite"; elsewhere he says that she "allows of amorous admiration but prohibits desire."22The Four Foster Children of Desire dramatizes this tantalizing situation, showing how its victims are pathetically "weake in Fortune"; they clamor for their "desired patrimonie" (FFC, p. 66) as well as maternal nurture, but what they receive is meager. Perfect Beauty "yeeldes continuall foode to all her foes, and though they feede not fat therewith, yet must they either feede theron or fast" (p. 79). The resentments intimated in Certain Sonnet 22, Sidney's only poem explicitly praising the Queen, resurface here: Elizabeth's admirers are in thrall to a lady "On whome all love, in whom no love is plaste."

The Four Foster Children of Desire consciously enacts the chivalric compromise. The participants declare "their most humble hearted submission" (FFC, p. 83), but their prowess in the tiltyard still "give[sj such true proofes of their valler, as at least shal make their desires more noble" (p. 68). Moreover, the tournament resolves the conflict between the Queen and her subjects since the latter apologize for interfering in the French marriage suit while righteously denying the Queen to all suitors. Finally, its allegory is a small masterpiece of what Louis Montrose calls "celebration and insinuation," one that simultaneously compliments and criticizes the Queen.23 The impresa's insistence on the challengers' selflessness and the broader intimations of the Queen's cruel indifference are as slyly ambiguous as the diamond-studded whip. Less overtly hostile than the tournament depicted in Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, The Four Foster Children of Desire also masks its aggressions behind obsequious speeches. In Marlowe's play the King easily grasps the significance of the contestants' impresas, asking, "Can you in words make showe of amitie, / And in your shields display your rancorous minds?"24 If the Queen discerned any comparable rancor behind Sidney's "show of amitie," she let it pass on this occasion.

Because it went so smoothly, The Four Foster Children of Desire was, in one sense, Sidney's most successful courtly performance. Nevertheless, it still did not produce the desired results, revealing the practical limits of "the rites of knighthood." Sidney returned to court in 1581, hoping to secure profitable employment, but he only met with further disappointments. The first occurred sometime before June when Lettice Knollys gave birth to a son. Prior to this event Sidney had been Leicester's sole heir, but he now found himself supplanted. Sidney could still dramatize his loss of a "desired patrimony" in the tiltyard by riding in a tournament with the device, "SPERAVI, thus dashed through to shew his hope therein was dashed."25 However, by the end of the year his frustrations became harder to accept as he found himself entangled in a "comber of debtes."26 He had followed his uncle's lead by staging The Four Foster Children of Desire, but Leicester's relationship to the Queen was harder to emulate. Sidney's frustration with his mentor is evident in a letter written to Leicester late in 1581: "Well my Lord your Lordeshippe made me a courtier do you think of it as seemes best unto you."27 By year's end, according to Wallace, Sidney withdrew again from court and "remained at Wilton for Christmas, and the fact that he did not present a New Year's gift to the Queen, and that his name does not appear in the lists of challengers or defenders in the great royal tournament of January 1st which was held in honour of the Duke D'Alençon, makes it probable that he extended his visit into the New Year."28 Following the activities of the previous year, this seems like a conspicuous absence.

Sidney's attitude toward the court at this point is just as ambiguous as his movements. Fifteen eighty-two is the year he composed Astrophil and Stella, and these sonnets are often seen as a turning away from the "busie wits" at court.29 Arthur Marotti argues that the sequence is directed to a coterie audience that provides "an imaginative and social retreat more hospitable" than the court.30 Annabel Patterson sees evidence of a growing alienation from court in the New Arcadia, whose revisions suggest a "loss of confidence in indirect or covert discourse, or in messages accommodated to the forms of Elizabethan courtship."31 A. C. Hamilton traces Sidney's disillusionment with the court back to an earlier stage, contending that "by 1579 Sidney was becoming more estranged from the court, imaginatively if not physically," because of his failure to find employment. In Hamilton's view, all Sidney's serious writing from the Old Arcadia onward is the work of "a poet writing privately, apart from the court even while he belongs to it. From 1580 until the final year of his life, the pattern is more definite: his essential life took place in his writings, however outwardly busy he may have been in affairs at court."32

There is certainly ample evidence of hostility toward the court in all of Sidney's works, but the movement of his mind in both his literature and his life is not one of progressive disillusion but continual oscillation. The pastoral havens of literature beckon, but the court proves inescapable for him. In the first eclogues of the Old Arcadia, Musidorus sings:

At this point in the work, the hero has assumed his pastoral disguise and prefers to "disburden a passion / … by the helpe of an outcrye: / Not limited to a whispringe note, the Lament of a Courtier."33 Sidney may have felt this way as well, but he still chose to take a prominent role in The Four Foster Children of Desire, one of the reign's grandest "pompes" shortly afterward, adapting his complaints there to the "whispringe note, the Lament of a Courtier."

Sidney's disaffection resurfaces in "Two Pastorals," written after 1581. The first is a celebration of true friendship with Fulke Greville and Edward Dyer, and the second, a frankly stated "Disprayse of a Courtly Life." The speaker of the "Disprayse" begins by describing his escape from the oppressive heat of the sun into a pleasant, flourishing wood:

Walking in bright Phoebus' blaze
Where with heate oppreste I was,
I got to a shady wood,
Where greene leaves did newly bud.
And of grasse was plenty dwelling,
Deckt with pyde flowers sweetely smelling.34

Elizabeth had been identified with the sun in The Four Foster Children of Desire, and here the speaker is "oppreste" by the blazing heat and light of courtly life. The "shady wood" of pastoral provides partial relief for another courtier, one who turns out to be a thinly disguised version of Sidney:

In this wood a man I met,
On lamenting wholy set:
Rewing change of wonted state,
Whence he was transformed late,
Once to Shepheard's God retayning,
Now in servile Court remayning.

The man laments his "change" from a retainer of the "Shepheard's God," Pan, and his return to the "servile Court." In the treacherous world of the court he cannot share his sufferings with anyone, and he finds solace only in pastoral solitude, venting his griefs to "a senceless tree." The shepherd misses his "old mates" who spent their time "never striving, but in loving," and he complains that he is poorly equipped for the competition and conflict of court life.

Sidney then distinguishes between the true love he feels for his friends and the deceptive "art of Love" required at court, insisting that he also lacks the skill needed for such an art:

Therefore shepheardes wanting skill,
Can Love's duties best fulfill:
Since they know not how to faine,
Nor with Love to cloake Disdaine,
Like the wiser sorte, whose learning,
Hides their inward will of harming.

The most repellent feature of the court was its enforcement of a code in which Love is used "to cloake Disdaine." Yet despite his aversion to such pretense, he is still "in servile court remaining."

Sidney's evident disillusion with "the rites of knighthood" is manifest in a poem recently discovered by Peter Beal and attributed to Sidney. It precedes two other poems linked to the occasion of the Accession Day tilt in the Ottley manuscript, and its references to the event are detailed and depressing:

Waynd from the hope wch made affection glad
to show it self in himnes of delight
yet highly pleased wth thos conceipts I had
made me in deserts grow a desert knighte
that synce no new impression shuld take mee

vnto myne old I might the freer bee
Ocasion deare the nurse or hand of hope
by ecchoes sound made knowne yor enitry daye
Affection fond to take his former scope:
Make me of ioye tread on this comonwaye
Myne armor barke & mosse of faded tree
My speares wild poles my end to love and see.

The verses were "inclosed in a tree sealed with a grene leaf," addressed "to her that is mrs of men, … & Sainte of the sabaoth," and accompanied by an impresa of a "tree, the one half springing ye othr half dying & this word hoc ordine fata. Such be ye corse of Heavens."35 The poem's metaphoric links to The Four Foster Children of Desire are especially interesting. In its description of a knight who is weaned from hope, it pursues the themes of nurturing and frustration, hope and despair. In the earlier tilt the "long haples, now hopeful fostered children of Desire" charged into the lists despite the efforts of their "dry nurse Dispaier [who] indevered to waine them from it" (FFC, p. 67). In the poem Despair has almost triumphed, depriving the event of the high-spirited ardor that "made affection glad / to show itself" in the annual tournament. The speaker is still "pleasd wth those conceipts I had [that] made me in deserts grow a desert knight." In his desolate, solipsistic contemplation, cut off from "new impression," he resembles Philisides in the Old Arcadia, who also sings "in those desert places."36

Hope and affection still persist, with affection still "fond to take his former scope"; but the double meaning of "fond" suggests the foolishness of this return to an old rut. Line 10 gives lip service to the knight's "ioye" while subverting this impression with a tone of weary resignation. The same line repeats the verb make for the fourth time, reinforcing the sense of pervasive coercion and passivity. The decision to "tread on this comon waye" hardly conveys any pleasure in the quest. This Accession Day tilt presents the image of a crowded treadmill, and the tone of weary, helpless resignation is confirmed by an impresa of a half-dead tree and the motto hoc ordine fata.

Hope and affection are only kept alive by the "nurse" Occasion rather than Desire. Occasion is, in one sense, the poem's central topic, the cause and opportunity for public celebration and performance, summoning the speaker from the "deserts" of private reflection. Nevertheless, as the melancholy tone of the poem indicates, such occasions must have seemed increasingly inadequate. Greville writes that Sidney "never was magistrate, nor possessed of any fit stage for eminence to act upon."37 That the tiltyard at Whitehall provided the only public stage, the only alternative to pastoral withdrawal, for so much of his career must have grated on Sidney at various points. Nevertheless, for all his melancholy posing, he kept coming back to the tiltyard. His impresa shield of 1584 displayed a buoyantly optimistic motto, countering the gloom of "Waynd from the hope" as well as the bitter complaint that his uncle had "made me a courtier." In the 1584 tournament, instead of complaining that his activities or identity were "made" by another, he resolutely declared, "Inveniam viam aut faciam—I will make or find a way."38 Sidney decided in his Apology for Poetry that the poet's most "high and incomparable" title was "maker," and he remained determined to make his own way in life as well as literature.39

In Sidney's literature it becomes obvious that his melancholy pose was an integral part of his chivalric persona and style. Like the attraction to pastoral withdrawal, this attitude was incorporated into his tiltyard devices and chivalric fiction, complicating and enriching them. Instead of opposing the conventions of Elizabethan chivalry, these postures were part of the chivalric repertoire. In the Old Arcadia Sidney's fictional persona, Philisides, is a sorrowful lover and stranger shepherd, whose thoughts are supposedly far from "courtly pomps" (OA, p. 335), but in the "New" Arcadia he returns as a shepherd knight to join in the annual Iberian tilts devised to celebrate the royal wedding anniversary:

The time of the maryinge that Queene was every year, by the extreame love of her husband & the serviceable love of the Courtiers, made notable by some publike honours, which indeede (as it were) proclaymed to the worlde, how deare she was to the people. Among other, none was either more gratefull to the beholders, or more noble in it selfe, than justs, both with sword and launce, mainteined for a seven-night together: wherein that Nation dooth so excell, bothe for comelines and hablenes, that from neighbour-countreis they ordinarily com, some to strive, some to learne, and some to behold.40

Philisides's entry into the lists is a paradoxical display of pastoral magnificence. He is announced

with bagpipes in steed of trumpets; a shepheards boy before him for a Page, and by him a dosen apparelled like shepherds for the fashion, though rich in stuffe, who caried his launces, which though strong to give a launcely blow indeed, yet so were they couloured with hooks neere the mourn, that they pretily represented shephooks. His own furniture was drest over with wooll, so enriched with Jewels artificially placed, that one would have thought it a mariage between the lowest and the highest. His Impresa was a sheepe marked with pitch, with this word Spotted to be knowne. And because I may tell you out his conceipt (though that were not done, till the running for that time was ended) before the Ladies departed from the windowes, among them there was one (they say) that was the Star, wherby his course was only directed. (NA, pp. 284-285)

Philisides jousts against the expert Lelius, "who was knowne to be second to none in the perfection of that Art" and who magnanimously lets his youthful adversary win (p. 285). Frances Yates and others have noted the clear references to Elizabeth's Accession Day tilts as well as the more specific allusion to an actual combat with Sir Henry Lee.41

Despite his own and his characters' supposed estrangement from "courtly pomps," Sidney's fiction remains firmly bound by their supposedly superficial splendors. His description of the Iberian jousts and similar events incorporates the customs and practices of contemporary tournaments in loving and expert detail.42 At the same time, the corruption of the Iberian court makes its annual festivities a hypocritical sham. The marriage the tournaments celebrate has allowed the Queen, Andromana, to dupe her uxorious, sybaritic husband and seize control of the kingdom. Having first seduced the King's son, Plangus, the wicked Andromana then banishes him and replaces him as heir to the throne with her own son, Palladius. When the two heroes of the New Arcadia, Pyrocles and Musidorus, arrive in her kingdom, she attempts to seduce them and imprisons them for resisting. They are released during the Iberian jousts where they join her son, Palladius, and help him win the day's prize. When the honorable Palladius tries to help the heroes escape, he is killed by the troops Andromana sends to pursue them, and Andromana, overcome by grief and shame, kills herself. As David Norbrook has remarked, "the imagery of courtly ceremonial is associated with violence and imprisonment rather than delight" in the New Arcadia, giving the work what he calls an oddly "claustrophobic atmosphere."43 Feelings of claustrophobia suffuse the episodes of Book II, as the protagonists' martial prowess and chivalric heroism prove increasingly ineffective. The adventures of Pyrocles and Musidorus culminate in a chaotic sea battle, which is terrifyingly claustral: "For the narrownesse of the place, the darkenesse of the time, and the uncertainty in such a tumult how to know friends from foes, made the rage of swordes rather guide, then be guided by their maisters" (NA, p. 305).

Book III initially promises to break free of this narrative impasse. The book focuses primarily on the war between King Basilius and the rebel Amphialus, and their struggle has a serious and unsettling political significance. The "justification" of his rebellion published by Amphialus draws heavily on Huguenot theories of the subaltern magistrate, theories Sidney would have known through his acquaintance with François Hotman's Franco-Gallia and with the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, presumably written by his friend Philippe de Mornay. Both works oppose to the potentially tyrannical powers of the crown the constitutional authority of the nobility, setting forth its right to legitimate resistance.44 Amphialus also argues that responsibility for the country should be shared by the ruling classes: "The care whereof did kindly apperteine to those, who being subalterne magistrates and officers of the crowne, were to be employed as from the Prince, so for the people" (NA, p. 372). This responsibility re quires that "the weale publicke was more to be regarded, then any person, or magistrate that thereunto was ordeined" (p. 372). Thus, "the duetie which is owed to the countrie, goes beyond all other dueties" (p. 371), superseding older loyalties to the monarch. Such rational abstraction subverts and demystifies traditional bonds, such as "all tender respects of kinred" and "long-helde opinions," because these are simply oppressive deceits, "rather builded upon a secreate of government, then any ground of truth" (p. 371).

Having established these general principles, Amphialus applies them to the political crisis in Arcadia. Because Basilius has "given over al care of government" and neglects the "good estate of so many thousands," the country founders in a "dangerous case" (NA, p. 372). He proposes to restore order by taking control himself, a move justified by claims of blood as well as political necessity: Amphialus is "descended of the Royall race, and next heire male" (p. 372). The duly appointed regent, Philanax, is denigrated as "a man neither in birth comparable to many, nor for his corrupt, prowde, and partiall dealing, liked of any" (p. 372). The inconsistencies of the theory begin to show at this point, as Amphialus's "justification" tries to have it both ways, alternately denying and asserting traditional standards of legitimacy. Such inconsistencies were inherent in assertions of the rights of subaltern magistrates, whose radical and revolutionary impulses were muted by a desire to preserve their place in the social hierarchy. Yet for all its logical weaknesses, Amphialus's justification of rebellion has a disturbing polemical power rarely matched in Elizabethan literature.

Amphialus's preparations for battle also show a strategic clarity and intelligence uncommon in chivalric romance:

Then omitted he nothing of defence, as wel simple defence, as that which did defend by offending, fitting instruments of mischiefe to places, whence the mischiefe might be most liberally bestowed. Nether was his smallest care victuals, as wel for the providing that which should suffice both in store & goodnesse, as in well preserving it, and wary distributing it, both in quantitie, and qualitie; spending that first which would keepe lest. (NA, p. 373)

Once the battle begins, Amphialus is carried away by its excitement; but while the protagonist loses his sense of its larger ends, the author does not, at least not immediately. Sidney assigns a more practical perspective to an "olde Governour" of Amphialus and allows him to interrupt the action. The older authority breaks up a fight between his former charge and a Black Knight, wounding the latter warrior and killing his horse: "Amphialus cried to him, that he dishonoured him: You say well (answered the olde Knight) to stande now like a private souldier, setting your credite upon particular fighting, while you may see Basilius with all his hoste, is getting betweene you and your towne" (p. 393). The old governor rebukes him once again when Amphialus accepts another opponent's challenge to single combat, one whose motto is, "The glorie, not the pray" (p. 416). This irresponsible subordination of practical to chivalric ends is condemned by the seasoned veteran who accuses Amphialus of seeking "rather … the glorie of a private fighter, then of a wise Generall" (p. 414). The harsh and ugly violence of the opening scenes of the war seems to confirm Sidney's agreement with the old governor's point of view because he deliberately strips away the glorious facade of chivalry:

For at the first, though it were terrible, yet Terror was deckt so bravelie with rich furniture, guilte swords, shining armours, pleasant pensils, that the eye with delight had scarce leasure to be afraide: But now all universally defiled with dust, bloud, broken armours, mangled bodies, tooke away the maske, and sette foorth Horror in his own horrible manner, (p. 392)

Nevertheless, despite these initial glimmers of critical insight, the New Arcadia remains bound by the conventions of chivalric romance. The old governor soon disappears from the narrative, and Amphialus can blithely ignore his admonitions. Oblivious to the requirements of supply, fortification, and military command, Amphialus concentrates instead on the decorations of his horse and armor in his efforts to impress his beloved. The war itself shrinks to a series of single combats, most involving Amphialus, and it regains the chivalric glamor lost in the first battle. In Sidney's eyes, combat presents a beautiful spectacle even when its outcome is painfully tragic. Amphialus easily defeats the "knight of the Tombe," only to discover that he has slain the lady, Parthenia. The wife of a knight killed in a previous encounter, she yearns only to join her husband in death, and she dies thanking Amphialus for this "service" (NA, p. 447). Amphialus is over whelmed by feelings of "grief, compassion, & shame," but Sidney's description of the corpse is oddly exquisite:

her necke, a necke indeed of Alablaster, displaying the wounde, which with most daintie blood laboured to drowne his owne beauties; so as here was a river of purest redde, there an Iland of perfittest white, each giving lustre to the other; with the sweete countenance (God-knowes) full of an unaffected languishing: though these thinges to a grosly conceaving sense might seeme disgraces; yet indeed were they but apparailing beautie in a new fashion, which all looked-upon thorough the spectacles of pittie, did ever encrease the lynes of her naturall fairenes. (p. 447)

The cruel marks of her injuries might shock or horrify "a grosly conceaving sense," but the discerning esthete sees that they only make the victim more beautiful. Such chivalric equanimity imposes an elegant order on the dreadful mayhem of warfare, allowing its adherents to die a "beautiful" death, but it tends to lose sight of the larger purpose of war in its focus on the individual warrior and his encounters. Amphialus's struggle forfeits its strategic coherence as it degenerates into a string of self-contained, inconsequential contests.

The political aims professed in Amphialus's "justification" are similarly blurred. Despite its inconsistencies, that statement made claims for the nobility's subaltern authority that were truly revolutionary. However, responsibility for these unorthodox ideas is exclusively assigned to Amphialus's wicked mother, Cecropia, who finally dies for her role in kidnapping the princesses. The son's actual motives turn out to be entirely romantic. Like the heroes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, he also loves one of the daughters of King Basilius, but he resorts to open war rather than subterfuge to free them from their father's control. Moreover, his love is unrequited, driving him to ever more desperate measures. Amphialus's hopeless passion wins the sympathy of his harshest enemies, including the regent, Philanax, who says that his "fault passed is excusable, in that Love perswaded, and youth was persuaded" (NA, p. 401). His love for Philoclea inflames and then mollifies his aggression, "making all his authoritie to be but a footestoole to Humbleness" (p. 370). Romantic pathos finally supplants rebellious ambition. Enraged and grieved by the discovery of his mother's abuse of their captives, including his beloved Philoclea, Amphialus tries to kill himself and fails, presenting a "pittiful spectacle, where the conquest was the conquerors overthrow" (p. 494).

Caught between conflicting impulses of aggression and self-destruction, Amphialus is a typical Sidney hero. Pyrocles, the main protagonist of the New Arcadia, also oscillates between defiance of authority and resignation to the defeat of his desire. Toward the end of the New Arcadia he too bungles his attempt at suicide, his resistance to Basilius's authority overwhelmed by romantic pathos, but his last scene is more heroic than Amphialus's. At the end he rises to do battle with one last foe. Sidney's description of their struggle breaks off in mid-sentence, leaving the New Arcadia unfinished.

In several senses Sidney resembles his heroes, and the end of his book resembles his own. Sir Philip shared his characters' youthful energy, passionate activism, and high ideals. He was as determined as they were "to imploy those gifts esteemed rare in them to the good of mankind" (NA p. 206), but when he did so, he too found himself entangled in intractable difficulties and conflicts with authority. As a result, many of his undertakings, including his last, resembled his heroes' adventures, which were "not so notable for any great effect they perfourmed, yet worthy to be remembered for trie unused examples therein" (p. 206). Finally, both stories, Sidney's and the New Arcadia's, are cut off in the middle with stirring scenes of chivalric heroism, their larger contradictions remaining unresolved.

Sidney's "desyre for the beeing busied in a thing of som serviseable experience" grew increasingly urgent after the disappointments of 1581.45 He attempted various projects, including joining Drake's voyage to the New World, but, as Fulke Greville says, "Sir Philip found this and many other of his large and sincere resolutions imprisoned within the plights of their fortunes that mixed good and evil together unequally."46 The Netherlands expedition seemed the answer to his prayers since he could finally take his rightful place as a military commander in the sacred struggle against Spain, confident in the righteousness and ultimate triumph of the Protestant cause: "For me thinkes I see the great work indeed in hand, against the abusers of the world, wherein it is no greater fault to have confidence in mans power, then it is to hastily to despair of Gods work." Sidney's problems with the Queen persisted since she was apt "to interpret everything to my disadvantage," and he was eager to deny her suspicions on a particular point: "I understand I am called very ambitious and prowd at home, but certainly if thei knew my ha[rt] thei woold not altogether so judg me."47 Throughout his life Sidney was hobbled by an inability to acknowledge his own ambitions.

Once in the Netherlands, Sidney proved to be a responsible and effective general, paying close attention to matters of finance and supply, discipline and tactics. Greville's description of his capture of Axel praises him accordingly:

For instance, how like a soldier did he behave himself, first, in contriving, then in executing, the surprise of Axel, where he revived that ancient and severe discipline of order and silence in their march, and after their entrance into the town, placed a band of choice soldiers to make a stand in the market-place, for security to the rest that were forced to wander up and down by direction of commanders, and, when the service was done, rewarded that obedience of discipline in every one liberally out of his own purse.48

His father's secretary, Edmund Molyneux, asserted that

his advice for the service intended at Gravelin (dissenting in opinion from others, who were thought the most expert capteins and best renowned and sorted souldiours) gave such a sufficient proofe of his excellent wit, policie, and ripe iudgement, as onelie act and counsell, with the losse of a verie few of his companie, wrought all their safeties, which otherwise by treacherie had been most likelie to have beene intrapped.49

Sidney also became increasingly critical of his uncle's inept leadership and vainglorious shows, though his criticisms were necessarily muted. In a letter to the Earl of Leicester, he caustically recounted the "news in Roterdam, … that your band is of very hansome men, but meerly and unarmed spending monei and tyme to no purpos."50 Later in the campaign he noted flaws in the overall strategy, complaining that instead of fortifying the "principal sea places" they already held, "we do still make camps and streight again mar them for want of meanes, and so lose our monei to no purpos." That same day he wrote Walsingham another guarded, but gloomy, assessment of their situation: "We are now four monthes behynd a thing unsupportable in this place. To complain of my Lord of Lester you know I mai not but … I did never think our nation had been so apt to go to the Enemy as I fynd them."51

The skirmish at Zutphen, where Sidney received his fatal wound, provided an escape from these increasingly depressing strategic concerns. When the fog around the English camp lifted to reveal a large Spanish convoy, the English charged. Amidst the frustrations and delays of a prolonged siege campaign, the chance for hand-to-hand combat proved irresistible; the skirmish at Zutphen was, as Simon Adams says, a kind of "military catharsis."52 The Earl of Leicester's report of the event and of his nephew's injuries betrays his own mixed feelings regarding the clash between the demands of honor and military discipline: "There was too many indeed at this skirmish of the better sort, but I was offended when I knew it, but could not fetch them back: but since they have all so well escaped (save my dear nephew), I would not for ten thousand pounds but they had been there since they have all won that honour they have."53 Even the general entrusted with the responsibilities of command affirms the supremacy of honor. George Whetstone's poetic tribute renders the contradictions of Sidney's death even more poignant. Sir Philip's friend and mentor, Hubert Languet, had presciently warned him that "a man who falls at an early age cannot have done much for his country,"54 and Whetstone's fallen Sidney laments his "inability to do my Countrey good":

Yet Whetstone, a professional soldier who also fought at Zutphen, still concludes, as Leicester had, that the "lasting fame" secured by this exploit justifies the loss of Sidney's life.

Later accounts of Sidney's final battle become more romantically chivalric, adding legendary incidents of bravery and altruism. Fulke Greville's Dedication is the most powerfully hagiographic. In his version Sidney is wounded in the thigh because "the marshal of the camp [was] lightly armed," and Sidney's "unspotted emulation of his heart to venture without any inequality made him cast off his cuisses."56 After he is shot, Sidney yields his cup of water to a dying foot soldier, uttering the immortal words, "Thy need is greater than mine."57 Thomas Moffet says Sidney failed to arm himself adequately because he was hurrying to rescue a friend when he was slain by "a brigand's hand craftily hidden in a ditch."58 He employs a trope of Renaissance chivalric romance extending from Ariosto's attack on gunpowder to Cervantes's lament that "a base and cowardly hand … [can] take the life of a brave knight."59

In many of these tributes the chivalric heroism of Sidney's death explicitly mutes the contradictions of his life, the clash between his own autonomy and ambition and his deference to the Queen. One writer says he died "of manly woundes receiued in seruice of his Prince … in the open fielde, in Martiall Maner, the honorablest death that could be desired, and best beseeming a Christian Knight, whereby he hath worthely wonne to him selfe immortal fame among the godly." From this point of view Sidney's life acquires a happy unity, reconciling heroic virility and dutiful obedience, activism and contemplation, as he passes smoothly "from the companie of the muses to the campe of Mars … to followe the affayres of Chivalrie."60 Fulke Greville's account of his friend's life is far more sophisticated, but it still imposes a balance between ambition and duty that is too pat. In Greville's biography Sidney's life finally presents an "exact image of quiet and action (happily united in him, and seldom well divided in any)."61 In such elegiac tributes the chivalric compromise is imposed on the once volatile conflicts of Sidney's brief life. The "exact image of quiet and action" is, to some extent, a death mask of his own devising, an image perfectly embodied by the figure of "the Shepherd Knight." His fascination with the ceremonial surface of "the rites of knighthood" and his guilt about his own deeper ambitions kept him bound by that image in life and death.

After Sidney's death the figure of the Shepherd Knight endured in popular memory, celebrated in chivalric verse and ceremony. In a ballad by John Phillips, Sidney is recalled as a vapidly contented courtier:

In Marshall feates I settled my delight,
The stately steede I did bestride with ioy,
At tilt and turney oft I tried my might,
In these exploits I never felt annoy.62

In the 1590 Accession Day tilt Sir Henry Lee, the Lelius of the New Arcadia, retired as the Queen's champion in a ceremony conducted with great solemnity. To his successor, the Earl of Cumberland, he bequeathed a collection of his own tilt devices and poems from Sidney's Old Arcadia, a text Frances Yates calls "the scriptures of the perfect knight of Protestant chivalry." Sidney's posthumous image exemplifies the ironies of what Stephen Greenblatt calls "Renaissance self-fashioning," a process that often drastically diminishes "human autonomy in the construction of identity."63

Yet even here, at Lee's retirement tilt, a dissonant note intrudes. In George Peele's Polyhymnia, a versified record of the 1590 Accession Day tilt, the entry of the Earl of Essex is at least as dramatic as anyone else's. He appears "Yclad in mightie Armes of mourners hue" in honor of Sir Philip Sidney, "whose successor he / In Love and Armes had ever vowed to be."64 According to Roy Strong, Essex would have been chosen as the Queen's champion had not his marriage to Frances Walsingham, Sidney's widow, come to light.65 Instead of playing down the offense, Essex defiantly flaunts it, proclaiming his allegiance to Sidney and his new wife. In doing so, Essex sought to upstage the new champion by establishing a line of chivalric succession worthier and more heroic than that bequeathed by Lee and formally declaring himself its heir. As we shall see, the Earl of Essex claimed and exploited the Sidney legend for his own purposes, reawakening some of the contradictions behind it and transforming the "exact image of quiet and action" into a "dangerous image."


1 Malcolm William Wallace, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915), p. 69.

2HMC, De L'Isle and Dudley, ed. C. L. Kingsford (London: HMSO, 1925), 1:304.

3 See D. C. Peck's introduction to Leicester's Commonwealth, showing its influence on more respectable histories such as Camden's, Naunton's, Ashmole's, and others (p. 45).

4Leicester's Commonwealth, pp. 80, 174.

5 Sidney, Defence of the Earl of Leicester, in Miscellaneous Prose, p. 140.

6 Ibid., p. 134.

7 Ibid., p. 135. Cooke's genealogy also includes, in addition to Guy of Warwick, these same families as in Dudley's family tree (Dudley Papers, Longleat, MS 149b).

8 Sidney, Defence of the Earl of Leicester, p. 140.

9 Peck argues that the author was not Robert Parsons, as is generally assumed, but Charles Arundel, with the assistance of others in the Catholic court party (Le icester's Commonwealth, p. 25-32).

10 Sidney, The Lady of May, in Miscellaneous Prose, pp. 30-31.

11 William Ringler discusses the connection between military aid to the Dutch and the Lady of May in his edition of The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (1962; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), p. 362.

12 "A Letter Written by Sir Philip Sidney to Queen Elizabeth, Touching Her Marriage with Monsieur," in Miscellaneous Prose, p. 48.

13 Ibid., pp. 46, 54.

14 In her introduction to this letter in Miscellaneous Prose Katherine Duncan-Jones insists on the tact and intelligence of Sidney's letter and accurately notes the lack of evidence for his "banishment" from court (pp. 35-36). I find her contention that the letter "may have given little or no offence" (p. 36) less persuasive. Elizabeth raged at her Privy Council for addressing the subject, and Sidney's marginal status at court would only have made his advice seem more presumptuous rather than less.

15 Greville, Prose Works, pp. 40-41.

16 Ibid., p. 41, 87.

17 Ephim G. Fogel argues that Sidney is probably the author of most of the challengers' speeches, in "A Possible Addition to the Sidney Canon," Modern Language Notes 75 (1960): 389-394.

18 Sidney, The Four Foster Children of Desire, in Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Totawa, N.J.: Brewer, Rowman, and Littlefield, 1980), ed. Jean Wilson, p. 70; hereafter cited in the text.

19 These are included by Ringler as "Poems possibly by Sidney" 4 and 5, in Sidney, Poems, pp. 345-346.

20 See Norman Council, "O Dea Certe: The Allegory of the Fortress of Perfect Beauty," Huntington Library Quarterly 39 (1976): 334.

21 Naunton, Fragmenta Regalia, p. 75. See also Arthur Marotti's discussion of desire as a trope for ambition, and grace as a trope for patronage, in "Love Is Not Love:' Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order," ELH 49 (1982): 396-428.

22 Bacon, "Discourse in Praise of the Queen," in Works, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath (1857-1874; New York: Garrett Press, 1968), 8:139, and "In Felicem Memoriam Elizabethae," in Works, 6:317.

23 Louis Adrian Montrose, "Celebration and Insinuation: Sir Philip Sidney and the Motives of Elizabethan Courtship," Renaissance Drama, n.s., 8 (1977): 3-35.

24 Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, II.ii.34-35, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers (1973; Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 39.

25 Camden, Remaines (1605), p. 174, cited by Ringler in Sidney, Poems, p. 441.

26 "Correspondence," November 13, 1581, in The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (1912; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 3:138.

27 Ibid., December 28, 1581, p. 140.

28 Wallace, Life of Sir Philip Sidney, p. 273.

29 Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 30, in Poems, p. 180.

30 Marotti, "Love Is Not Love," p. 406. At the same time, Marotti contends that Sidney continues to address courtly issues of patronage and ambition throughout the sequence.

31 Annabel Patterson, Censorship and Interpretation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), p. 41.

32 A. C. Hamilton, Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 21, 17.

33 Sidney, Poems, p. 35.

34 Ibid., pp. 262-264. Ringler dates them after 1581 (p. 498); they were published in 1602.

35 Peter Beal, "Poems by Sir Philip Sidney: The Ottley Manuscript," The Library 33 (1978): 284-295. Beal proposes both 1577 and 1583 as possible dates of composition since Elizabeth's Accession Day fell on a Sunday, the "sabaoth" referred to in the dedication; but there is no record of Sidney jousting in 1583.

36 Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), ed. Jean Robertson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 159; hereafter cited in the text.

37 Greville, Prose Works, p. 38.

38 Emma Marshall Denkinger, "The Impresa Portrait of Sir Philip Sidney in the National Portrait Gallery," PMLA 47 (1932): 17.

39 Sidney, Apology for Poetry, p. 99.

40 Sidney, The "New" Arcadia (1590), in Prose Works, 1:282-283; hereafter cited in the text.

41 Yates, Astraea, pp. 88-90.

42 See Malcolm Parkinson, "Sidney's Portrayal of Mounted Combat with Lances," in Spenser Studies (New York: AMS Press, 1984), 5:231-251.

43 David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 106.

44 For a discussion of the influence of Huguenot theories of the subaltern magistrate on Sidney's thought, see William D. Briggs, "Political Ideas in Sidney's Arcadia," Studies in Philology 28 (1931): 137-161, and my own Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1979), pp. 8-11, 183-186. In Faire Bitts: Sir Philip Sidney and Renaissance Political Theory (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1984) Martin N. Raitiere attributes the Vindiciae to Hubert Languet, Sidney's friend and mentor (pp. 113-141), and he concludes that Sidney repudiates the radicalism of the work (pp. 103-110). For a more comprehensive account of Huguenot theory, see J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (1928; London: Methuen, 1957), pp. 302-331, and Walzer, Revolution of the Saints, pp. 74-87. The major documents are included in Julian Franklin, ed., Constitutionalism and Resistance in the Sixteenth Century.

45 Sidney, "Correspondence," January 27, 1583, in Prose Works, 3:143.

46 Greville, Prose Works, p. 46.

47 Sidney, "Correspondence," March 24, 1586, in Prose Works, 3:166, 167.

48 Greville, Prose Works, p. 72.

49 Edmund Molyneux, "Memoir," in Holinshed, Chronicles, p. 1552. See also John Gouws's commentary on Greville's Dedication in Greville, Prose Works, pp. 212-213.

50 Sidney, "Correspondence," February 12, 1586, in Prose Works, 3:160.

51 Ibid., August 14, 1586, 3:179, 180.

52 Simon Adams, "The Military Campaign of 1586," paper presented at the International Conference on Sir Philip Sidney, Leiden, The Netherlands, September 2-4, 1986. The Netherlands war was, as J. R. Hale says, "largely a war of sieges." See J. R. Hale, The Art of War and Renaissance England (Washington, D.C.: Folger Press, 1961), p. 26.

53CSP, Foreign, Elizabeth (1586-1587), ed. Sophie Crawford Lomas and Allen B. Hinds (London: HMSO, 1927), 21(ii): 165.

54The Correspondence of Sir Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, trans. Stuart A. Pears (London, 1845), p. 137.

55 George Whetstone, Sir Philip Sidney, his valiant death, and true vertues (1586), sig. C 1v.

56 Greville, Prose Works, p. 76. Sir John Smythe contends, on the other hand, that Sidney charged without leg armor because he was one of the "new fantasied men of war … [who] despise and scorn our ancient arming of ourselves both on horseback and on foot, saying that we armed ourselves in times past with too much armor," in his Certain Discourses Military, ed. J. R. Hale (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964), p. 42.

57 Greville, Prose Works, p. 77

58 Thomas Moffet, Nobilis or A View of the Life and Death Of a Sidney (and Lessus Lugubris), trans. Virgil B. Heltzel and Hoyt H. Hudson (San Marino, Calif: Huntington Library Press, 1940), pp. 90, 93.

59 Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso, trans. Barbara Reynolds (1975; Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1977), pp. 350-351, and Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, trans. J. M. Cohen (1950; Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1978), p. 344.

60 Arthur Golding, "Epistle Dedicatorie," in Philippe de Mornay, A Woorke Concerning the Trewenesse of the Christian Religion (London, 1587), pp. 3*v, 4*r.

61 Greville, Prose Works, p. 89. Compare Greville's claim that "in the whole course of his life he did so constantly balance ambition with safe precepts of divine and moral duty as no pretence whatsoever could have enticed that gentleman to break through the circle of a good patriot" (p. 75).

62 John Phillips, The Life and Death of Sir Philip Sidney (London, 1587), sig. B 2v.

63 Yates, Astraea, p. 103; Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 256.

64 Peele, Polyhymnia (1590), in Works, 1:235-236.

65 Strong, Cult of Elizabeth, p. 140.

Arthur F. Kinney (essay date 1990)

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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 appear, following the earl of Arundel and Lord Windsor and preceding his friend Fulke Greville, and his striking appearance suggests the central role he means to play at court:

Then proceeded M. Philip Sidney, in very sumptuous maner, with armor part blewe, & the rest gilt & engraven, with foure spare horses, having caparisons and furniture veri riche & costly, as some of cloth of gold embroidred with pearle, and some embrodred with gold and silver feathers, very richly & cunningly wrought, he had foure pages that rode on his four spare horses, who had cassock coats & Venetian hose al of cloth of silver, layd with gold lace, & hats of the same with golde bands, and white fethers, and eache one a paire of white buskins. Then had he a thirtie gentlemen & yeomen, & foure trumpetters, who were all in cassocke coats and venetian hose of yellow velvet, laid with silver lace, yellowe velvet caps with silver bands and white fethers, and every one a paire of white buskins. And they had uppon their coates, a scrowle or bande of silver, which came scarfe wise over the shoulder, and so downe under the arme, with this poesie, or sentence written upon it, both before and behind, Sic nos non nobis ["so are we not out own"].1

But this is no typical royal entertainment; it is, rather, a highly charged political occasion. The pageant, with its colorful costumes, elaborate mechanisms, and splendid displays, is meant deliberately to resemble, and so to mock, the kind of pageantry associated with the Catholic French court of Catherine de Medici and Henri II. And the plot, such as it is, means to suggest, through the metaphor of the four foster children—that is, not English-born children—the blatant, self-aggrandizing desire of the duke of Alençon. This son of Catherine and Henri is even now laying siege to the queen of England, portrayed here as the Fortress of Perfect Beauty. The "message" of the two-day tournament, according to its modern editor Jean Wilson, "is clear. The Four Foster Children realize that they have overreached themselves, that Perfect Beauty is unattainable, that Desire by its nature cannot have what it desires, and, yielding to the queen, withdraw from the contest. The significance of this would not be lost on the French audience" then visiting the queen at Whitehall.2 But we should add that the queen herself would not miss the significance of the fact that the whole entertainment was modeled after an Accession Day Tilt. And the fundamental message that it encodes is that the forces embodied in the "foster children," in those state visitors from France who have come to press for Elizabeth's hand in marriage to Alençon, will, if successful, undermine such celebrations as are held on Accession Day—celebrations that mark the majesty, and legitimacy, of Elizabeth I.

By 1581, even without the aid of rhetoric—for this show had what the Tudors called a "plot," but not a script—Sidney was using an art form to make a political statement on behalf of the Puritan faction of Elizabeth I's Privy Council. For those of us considerably removed in time from the court factions at White-hall this statement may, at first, be lost. But it was surely a strong one at the time, when the knights in the play, dressed as the French courtiers who were also present, made their charges on the queen. And its political content is perfectly in keeping with the rest of Sidney's writings up to that time. According to Katherine Duncan-Jones, "Sidney's first literary work," The Lady of May—another royal performance, the masque having been acted before the queen at Wanstead in 1578 or 1579—is also an encoded statement. While the debate between the shepherd Espilus, representing the country life, and the forester Therion, representing the active and ambitious life, putatively involves their suing for the hand of a young woman, what it really represents are Sidney's two means of suing for the queen's favor. And when the queen is asked to choose one of the suitors at the end of the masque, she is in fact completing a tacit negotiation with Sidney, which the conditions of the performance make it impossible for her to avoid.4

At the same time that Sidney was writing the occasional and particular Lady of May, he was also writing his more theoretical Defence of Poetry.5 It begins with a delightful anecdote mocking Stephen Gosson who, in his Schoole of Abuse (1579), had said that good horsemen were truly loyal subjects. So Sidney opens by recalling a teacher of good horsemanship with whom he had studied in Italy, John Pietro Pugliano. Sidney tells us Pietro had argued that

no earthly thing bred such wonder to a prince as to be a good horseman—skill of government was but a pedanteria in comparison. Then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast the horse was, the only serviceable courtier without flattery, the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse.6

It is a courtly flourish, this joke, but it also has its serious side. Courtiers are dismissed as flatterers, but the attributes Pugliano denied them, in comparison to the horse—service, beauty, faith, and courage—are just the attributes that will later in the Defence be awarded to the poet: he who practices what Sidney himself calls, modestly and misleadingly, "my unelected vocation."7 He then proceeds to note that the true poet is not merely a maker, as the Greeks have it, but also a seer, as the Romans have it, "a diviner … or prophet, as by his conjoined words vaticinium and vaticinari is manifest: so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge" (p. 76). The Elizabethan poet, like the biblical poet David, can thus invent prosopopoeias, fictions that envision holy truths, so that those readers "that with quiet judgements will look a little deeper, … shall find the end and working of it such as, being rightly applied, deserveth not to be scourged out of the Church of God" (p. 77). If we read the Defence closely, we find that it is a political document as well as a poetics; it is designed to enable the poet, to give him an unassailable position of power and authority. By teaching virtuous knowledge in the strongest and most permanent way, by encouraging readers to exercise virtue so as to know it—for that, Sidney says, is the true end of poetry—the poet becomes the moral leader, even the moral arbiter, of all men and women. On the one hand Sidney, as a poet, enfranchises himself by giving the "right poet" a central political role and access to rulers; on the other hand, the poet gains this authority on the grounds and by the means of a morality that forwards the claims of the Puritan faction at court.

Royalist rhetoric and Puritan rhetoric are thus made indivisible. They supply, in their beauty and their faith, and through Sidney's own courageous use of them, the kind of courtly service without flattery that he set out to praise, pace Pugliano, in the exordium. Lest we forget either this potentially enormous power or Sidney's skill as a courtly rhetorician, he reminds us of both in closing:

I conjure you all that have had the evil luck to read this ink-wasting toy of mine, even in the name of the nine Muses, no more to scorn the sacred mysteries of poesy; no more to laugh at the name of poets, as though they were the next inheritors to fools; no more to jest at the reverent title of a rhymer; but to believe, with Aristotle, that they were the ancient treasurers of the Grecians' divinity; to believe, with Bembus, that they were the first bringers-in of all civility; to believe, with Scaliger, that no philosopher's precepts can sooner make you an honest man than the reading of Virgil; to believe, with Clauserus, the translator of Cornutus, that it pleased the heavenly Deity, by Hesiod and Homer, under the veil of fables, to give us all knowledge, logic, rhetoric, philosophy natural and moral, and quid non?; to believe, with me, that there are many mysteries contained in poetry, which of purpose were written darkly, lest by profane wits it should be abused; to believe, with Landino, that they are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury; lastly, to believe themselves, when they tell you they will make you immortal by their verses. (pp. 121-22)

What a bold bid for authority this is: it does no less than threaten the queen with being forgotten, and robbing herself of immortality, if she does not take care to insure her memory with the aid of a poet—a poet like Sidney who, unwinding these allusions, suggests with the subtlety of a courtly poet that he can be the Vergil to her Augustus! It is all performed, of course, under the poetic fancy of conjuring, and the "conjurors" Sidney names are the authorities for the very civilization that Elizabeth I was fostering.

We must again see a double edge in the very last sentence of the Defence, which poses, wittily and seriously, as a "curse": "thus much curse I must send you, in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph" (p. 121). "Thus much curse I must send you," he writes, not as a wicked man, but rather "in the behalf of all poets": "that while you live, you live in love"—pointing to the queen's own chief metaphor for her relationship to her people—"and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet"—such as those that Sidney himself had been writing, in Astrophil and Stella. And these sonnets, widely circulated about Elizabeth's court, mocked the rhetoric of courtly love that was used in political negotiations with the queen by showing how it represented a relationship both artificial and self-defeating. No ruler—indeed, no privy councillor—could mistake the latent meaning of Sidney's "curse," especially taking it in conjunction with the courtly criticism of the equally encoded Astrophil and Stella.

But at the same time that Sidney was participating in the production of such encoded statements, enfranchising both his own authority and Puritan morality under the guise of elegance, learning, and wit, he was also making explicit political statements. According to Katherine Duncan-Jones and the late Jan van Dorsten, coeditors of Sidney's Miscellaneous Prose, the composition of the Defence of Poetry (ca. winter 1579-80, pp. 62-63) was bracketed between A Letter to Queen Elizabeth (ca. November or December 1579, p. 34) and that of the Defence of Leicester ("probably written some time before the summer of 1585," p. 124). The earl in question was Robert Dudley, who as Elizabeth's favorite was the most powerful single figure on her Privy Council, as well as one of the uncles to whom Sidney was heir.

The first of these writings, A Letter Written by Sir Philip Sidney to Queen Elizabeth, Touching Her Marriage with Monsieur, starts with the customary compliment, but even in the first sentence begins to turn toward giving the writer authority, largely through the meaning both on the surface of, and concealed within, the rhetoric: "Most feared and beloved, most sweet and gracious Sovereign: to seek out excuses of this my boldness, and to arm the acknowledging of a fault with the reasons for it, might better show I knew I did amiss, than any whit diminish the attempt; especially in your judgement, who is able lively to discern into the nature of the thing done" (p. 46). But the letter, which follows closely the arguments then being made by another privy councillor, Sir Francis Walsingham, who was with Leicester a coleader of the Puritan faction (and later Sidney's father-in-law), becomes even more blunt in urging the Puritan opposition to the queen's proposed marriage with Aleçon. Sidney goes on to suggest that the match threatens the health of both Elizabeth's body and the body politic: "Hazardous indeed, were it for nothing but the altering of a well maintained and well approved trade. For as in bodies natural any sudden change is not without peril, so in this body politic, whereof you are the only head, it is so much the more, as there are more humours to receive a hurtful impression" (p. 47). Not only does the queen have no need of a husband for, married to England, all of its people are her children, but she also risks losing the love of those children—and perhaps England as well—should she choose to go through with this proposed marriage to a member of the tyrannical (and Catholic) French royal family. On the topic of the ostensible reason for the match, Elizabeth's desire to produce a child to inherit the English throne, Sidney is pragmatically, even bluntly, honest: "Virtue and justice are the only bands of the people's love. And as for that point, many princes have lost their crowns, whose own children were manifest successors; and some that had their own children used as instruments of their ruin. Not that I deny the bliss of children, but only mean to show religion and equity to be of themselves sufficient stays" (p. 54). Religion and equity as the chief values, by which Sidney clearly means the Puritanism for which he, Walsingham, and Leicester all stood, is the subject he returns to in the letter's strong and memorable conclusion:

I do with most humble heart say unto your Majesty that, laying aside this dangerous help, for your standing alone, you must take it as a singular honour God hath done unto you, to be indeed the only protector of his church. And yet in worldly respects your kingdom is very sufficient so to do, if you make that religion upon which you stand to carry the only strength, and have abroad those who still maintain the same cause: who as long as they may be kept from utter falling, your Majesty is sure enough from your mightiest enemies. (p. 56)

Even in the more plainspoken defense of his uncle, the earl of Leicester, apparently written for publication (editor's introduction, p. 124), Sidney has at times the rhetorical wit and flourish of the courtier. He has been tracing, in an age enamored of genealogies and in reply to an attack on Leicester's (and therefore Sidney's own) background and breeding, the Dudley genealogy in some detail, when he pauses to comment on other great men who have been subjected to scandalmongers like his opponent:

A railing writer extant against Octavius Augustus saith his grandfather was a silversmith; another Italian, against Hugh Capet, though with most absurd falsehood, saith his father was a butcher. Of divers of the best houses of England there have been such foolish dreams, that one was a farrier's son, another a shoemaker's, another a milliner's, another a fiddler's: foolish lies, and by any that ever tasted any antiquities, known to be so. Yet those houses had luck to meet with honester railers, for they were not left fatherless clean; they descended from somebody; but we, as if we were Deucalion's brood new made out of stones, have left us no ancestors from whence we are come. (p. 138)

Despite his humor, Sidney saw the attack on Dudley, widely printed and circulated, as his contemporaries did: as a defamation "full of the most vile reproaches which a wit used to wicked and filthy thoughts can imagine" (p. 129); and he answers in kind. It is noteworthy that he once more uses, in defense of his uncle, the cause of right religion: the true Protestant religion for which Leicester has stood champion against incursions such as this one, written, Sidney suggests, by an anonymous recusant impostor. "And which is more base," he says, angrily and directly,

(if anything can be more base than a defamatory libeller) he counterfeits himself in all the treatise a Protestant, when any man which with half an eye may easily see he is of the other party; which filthy dissimulation if few honest men of that religion will use to the helping of themselves, of how many carats of honesty is this man, that useth it, as much as his poor power can, to the harm of another? … evident enough it is to any man that reads it what poison he means to her Majesty, in how golden a cup soever he dress it. (p. 130)

The abuse of true religion leads to the abuse of language and the abuse of politics. The three are, for Sidney, indivisible. Religion and equity lead to good government, to wise behavior, and to right poetry. This poetry his progenitor, the psalmist David, set as a model, so that Sidney, among others, could realize their proper conjunction in his own day: at Wilton, at White-hall, even in distant Zutphen and Arnhem.

In thus openly defending Leicester, Sidney was also openly aligning himself with the increasingly radical and aggressive Puritan faction, which had members both at Elizabeth's court and on her Privy Council. We must not forget that even if the queen showed an ascertainable fondness for Leicester, she did not extend the same affection to other Puritans. And Leicester, according to Lawrence Stone,

has been described as "the keystone of the whole edifice of Elizabethan Puritanism." As the leader of the moderate Puritan group in the Privy Council, he could block moves to persecute his protégés, and could get them out of prison; he could see that their books passed the censor, and as Chancellor of the University he could find them jobs at Oxford. In 1564 he is said to have stopped the Privy Council from authorizing Parker's Advertisements. He was the patron not only of Field and Cartwright, but also of scholars and educators like Laurence Humphrey, the Puritan President of Magdalen College at Oxford, and William Fulke, the Puritan Master of Pembroke Hall at Cambridge.8

Leicester was also the primary patron of Rowland Hall, printer of the Geneva Bible; and it was no accident that Arthur Golding dedicated to Leicester his translations of Calvin and Mornay. Wallace T. MacCaffrey adds that "from 1572 onwards Leicester became increasingly drawn away from domestic Protestantism to the larger international concerns of the reformed religion. More and more he was consumed by the ambition to play a grand role on this international stage. Most immediately he pressed Elizabeth to intervene in the Low Countries."9 Walsingham too, since his days as a Marian exile in Geneva, had been an exceptionally strong advocate of international Puritan activities.

Catholic aggression remained, for Puritan leaders, a near and present danger. The repression of the new religion by the old, beginning with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), which Sidney witnessed (James M. Osborn suggests Sidney may even have been forced to make the rounds, inspecting the Huguenot dead, with the duke of Nevers),10 must have looked very much like the kind of tyranny practiced by evil leaders that Sidney would record in his grandest political poem, the Arcadia. Tyranny had been a subject for Sidney ever since he took up the study of Aristotle's Politics while at Christ Church, Oxford. Jan van Dorsten, to give one example of Sidney's continuing interest in the subject, notes "a slightly erratic quotation" concerning tyranny, from Seneca's Oedipus, that appears in both the Defence and Certain Sonnets. He adds that this "powerful summary of tyranny's self-destructiveness appears to have been very much in Sidney's mind—presumably in the months when he was doomed to be 'idly' looking on 'our Neighbours' fires,' discussing poetry and politics and writing the Arcadia" (introduction to Defence, p. 60). And he had much to think about, much of it in his own country. The queen had mounted a serious campaign against Puritans, following the Admonition to Parliament in 1570; by 1573 she had passed a royal proclamation ordering the suppression of all "contentious sects and disquietness," and then appointed "special commissions to ensure compliance."11 In the meantime, William Cecil, the principal secretary, began his own campaign against the Catholics, with such pamphlets as The English Roman Life (1580), The Execution of Justice (1581), and the Declaration of the Favourable Dealing (1584). As for Parliament, in 1581 it passed two severe acts: making persons found teaching the Roman Supremacy guilty of treason, for which the penalty was death, and persons aiding them guilty of misprision, or concealing the knowledge of treason. In 1583 Whitgift, a known anti-Puritan newly appointed to the see of Canterbury, issued a set of articles enforcing laws on recusancy, forbidding authorized preaching by laymen, and—here was the catchCrefusing ordination to anyone without title of benefice. By 1586 even the Star Chamber was at work, tightening the control of all printing presses. And Jesuits were relentlessly hunted down, as in the wellknown case of Edmund Campion.

Such increasing restriction on the part of the Tudor monarchy must have reminded Sidney of the tyranny he had witnessed, at the age of eighteen, while on his Grand Tour: most probably, the religious tyranny in France under the Guises. And the danger of these restrictions must have been given added force by Sidney's awareness of Leicester's increasing anxiety regarding the Spanish threat to the cherished liberty of Protestants in the Low Countries. Everywhere, consciences seemed to be bent or threatened by the political wills of rulers. As a direct consequence, the revised Arcadia, surely begun by 1584, examines in detail many forms of moral and physical repression: in the acts of Erona, Andromana, and Artaxia (all, like Elizabeth, women), as well as in those of male characters like Plexirtus, or Anaxius and his brothers, Zoilus and Lycurgus. Sidney seems desirous, too, of showing how characters who are potentially more sympathetic—such as Gynecia, who falls passionately in love, or Cecropia, who feels betrayed by her brother-in-law Basilius and is protective of her son Amphialus—can easily fall into evil thoughts and actions in a world in which the tyranny of the passions seems much more human than impersonal political tyranny. But tyranny is not only ugly, it is contagious. We can measure with some accuracy Sidney's concern for and despair over tyranny when, even in the original Arcadia, through the patently transparent character of Philisides, he tells the story of mankind as an allegory about the origins of tyranny. In a study centered on this allegorical poem, Martin N. Raitiere, citing the Geneva version of 1 Sam. 8:11-18, relates Sidney's fable to God's warning to an apostate Israel:

This shall be the maner of the king that shall reigne over you: he will take your sonnes, and appoint them to his charets, and to be his horsemen…. He will also take your daughters…. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your best olive trees … the chief of your yong men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep, and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out at that day, because of your king, whome ye have chosen you, and the Lord will not heare you at that day.12

Calvin made much of this text in his gloss to the Geneva Bible, used throughout England by the Puritans. Sidney, in addition to this Calvinist concern with man's original apostasy, discusses two more forms of it: abandonment of responsibility, in his discussion of Basilius's surrender of the throne in book 1 of the Old Arcadia, and, later, mob rule, in Zelmane's address to the rebellious mob in the revised Arcadia (2.25). But it is tyranny on which Sidney centers his narrative. And he ends it with an exploration of the subtlest, and so the most attractive and dangerous, form of all: Euarchus's absolute application of Arcadian law in the great trial scene of book 5.

It is, in fact, in this matter of law that Sidney's firm advocacy of liberty and Puritanism comes through most strongly, for here he realized the joint concerns of religion and equity most completely and profoundly. We have paid too little attention to the fact that the Arcadia was written during a period of strong conflicts in England: not only between Catholics and Protestants, but also between courts of chancery and courts of common law, as they vied for judicial supremacy. Chancery, on occasion, even overturned judgments by courts of common law, albeit illegally; and such reversals were becoming more and more frequent in Sidney's day. From what must have seemed like time immemorial, common law had upheld the monarchy. It rested on two key principles: strict adherence to precedent and the uniform enforcement of the letter of the law. Over centuries, unyielding reliance on precedent gave to common law a stability that guaranteed consistent enactment of institutional and monarchical policies, for judges feared that any exception or deviation would result either in contradiction or in an ambiguity that would undermine the very validity of the law. Regardless of circumstances, judges applied—imposed might be a better word—a law with equal definition and force. As Sir William Holdsworth has it: "Narrow-minded judges, quibbling and overapprehensive, gradually surrounded each action with a mass of requirements of form. Each common law action had its own precedents, and the judges refused to admit a case was good in law if it did not rigorously meet the construction of the writ and the conditions laid down by precedent."13 In sharp contrast, chancery supported the individual application of the law and the individual determination of justice by closely examining surrounding, even mitigating, circumstances. It invoked a new legal term—equity—which caused the strictness of traditional justice to be tempered by mercy. In fact, according to William Harrison in his Description of England (1587), the Court of Chancery came to be popularly called the "Court of Conscience."14 The term was not unapt: the Court of Chancery, unlike courts of common law, had decidedly Christian roots, going back to the ecclesiastical appointments to the lord chancellorship first made by Henry III in the thirteenth century. The custom was interrupted in 1532 when Wolsey, as archbishop, appointed the secular statesman Thomas More to the position; but the ecclesiastical tradition was so strong that it continued to operate well into Sidney's day and beyond, into that of the longer-lived Francis Bacon. Chancery's jurisdiction, in fact, was at first little more than the power to intervene in cases of royal interest, when the harshness of the law necessitated the employment of equity to favor the crown; but over the centuries, chancery came to be thought of—however accurately—as an arm of justice affiliated with the church. By the time of the Arcadia chancery had become, by natural extension, the means by which Puritans insisted on individual legal justice compatible with and congruent to the individual consciences that they, but not the Catholics, proclaimed to be the foundation of religion.

The natural and progressively active collusion between chancery and Puritanism that I have been suggesting is anticipated very early indeed in a humanist dialogue, Christopher St. German's Doctor and Student (1523, 1530). In part an apology for English law, it was printed, partly in Latin and partly in English, "for the profyte of the multytude."15 St. German introduced the word "conscience" into the English legal vocabulary, as that divine spark "in the midst of every reasonable soul, as a light whereby he may discern and know what he ought to do, and what he ought not to do."16 The conscience, as popularly defined, was thus a kind of shorthand for equity itself, as is clear in the following definition from St. German:

Equytye is a [ryghtwysenes] that consideryth all the pertyculer cyrcumstaunces of the dede the whiche also is temperyd with the swetnes of mercye…. And the wyse man sayth: be not ouer moch ryghtwyse for the extreme ryghtwysenes is extreme wronge (as who sayth yf thou take all that the wordes of the law gyueth the thou shalte somtyme do agaynst the lawe).17

In time, St. German's treatise was supplanted by The Commentaries, or Reports of Edmund Plowden (1571 et seq.), and a work subsequently written by Edward Hake, EPIEIKEIA: A Dialogue on Equity in Three Parts, which states that "in the said highe Courte the decrees … sholde be deryved upon Conscience, even the conscience of the judge there, directed with all good circumstances of facts, which shoulde be evermore accompanied with comiseration and pitye."18 Hake further notes, in the same preface "To the Reader," that "No more can the wordes of the lawe without Equity to dyrecte yt to the righte sense thereof be said to be the lawe then the bodye of a man withoute reason to directe yt in the actions of a man maye be said to be a man."19 In this way, equity fulfilled the body and practice of common law and was made analogous to Calvin's notion that the New Testament fulfilled the meaning and prophecies of the Old (Institutes, 4.8.7). So popular, as an analogy to the concept of Christian mercy, did the legal notion of equity become—it is almost a commonplace by the time of Spenser's Mercilla and Shakespeare's Portia—that as the case loads in chancery increased to staggering numbers (by the time of Sir Francis Bacon, sixteen thousand cases were pending at one time), the Court of Requests also began to take up cases alleged to involve equity.

Through Elizabethan law and the various Tudor courts, then, English leaders of the Protestant cause—men like Leicester, Walsingham, and Sidney himself—founded a hierarchy of conscience. In fact, this hierarchy directly challenged the traditional one that, through concepts like the absolute law of the monarchy, gave Elizabeth I her authority. This potential conflict, this contest between the equity of chancery and the precedents of common law, is the constant (and efficient) cause of the Arcadia. There Euarchus attempts to harmonize wise thought and just action through his enforcement of common law—an enforcement of both the precedents and the strict rules that were based on them—in Arcadia. But such judgment misses the mark because Euarchus takes apparent truths, such as the death of Basilius and the guilt of Pyrocles and Musidorus, as facts. Thus, in actuality he is neither wise nor just. When he is confronted with mitigating circumstances, like his blood relationship to the two young men, he is able to draw on neither the pliability characteristic of Basilius, which would allow for a change of heart and mind, nor the rigid stability of Philanax, which, by the time of the trial, has already grown tyrannical in tone and untruthful in statement. Sidney has set up the terms of his fiction, then, so that they coincide precisely with issues raised in the debate between the relative merits of common law and chancery. The equity that chancery advocated, which Euarchus will not hear of, supports the claims of Pyrocles, Musidorus, Pamela, Philoclea, and—though she refuses to make any—Gynecia. It also accommodates all of the facts—not simply the apparent facts—of Arcadia's book 5. Equity admits flexibility and change, but it does not deny justice and stability. Equity also was, after all, what the Netherlands seemed to be struggling for; what Sidney's uncle, Leicester, would advocate; what his father, Sir Henry Sidney, argued for as the best means of establishing plantations in Ireland; and what Sidney's own youthful talent for negotiation and diplomacy, as honed during his Grand Tour, seemed to make him eminently qualified to practice.

Indeed, Sidney seems to have spent enormous time and energy rewriting, revising, and re-seeing the Arcadia because he perceived undeveloped potential in the materials of the fifth book of the Old Arcadia. We have testimony that this change of intention was substantial and important. After Sidney's unexpected death at Arnhem in 1586, Greville sent forth what Victor Skretkowicz calls "an urgent plea to Walsingham [as Sidney's executor] to prevent publication of the romantic though well polished 'old' Arcadia and to substitute for it 'a correction of that old one don 4 or 5 years since wch he left in trust wth me wherof ther is no more copies, & fitter to be printed then the first wch is so comon.'"20 Sidney's sister Mary, Countess of Pembroke, agreed to publish the revised version and, as far as we can tell, destroyed what copies she could of the original. What she published, with great but justifiable pride, was the "new" Arcadia, which is in many decisive ways a very different work from the "old." The revisions Sidney made do not talk about "uncertainty," to which no man can respond adequately, as the first Arcadia did, but about "disfigurement," to which a man can respond. "Disfigured minds" follow from "disfigured" bodies and their perspectives. From the modified ideal of Kalander's home (doubtless based on Penshurst, which links Sir Henry Sidney with Kalander rather than with Euarchus, as was once thought) to the war with the Helots and the long "captivity episode" in book 3, the "new" Arcadia traces the motives and actions of men and women who are thwarted in their plans or desires. Some of them, in turn, thwart the plans and desires of others, while the worst among them set out to rid the world of opposition with vengeance.

Even the "disfigurement" of the heroes, who are posing as a shepherd and an Amazon, is no longer simply a condition of the plot but now also a consequence of their short-sightedness. They betray their stations and themselves to achieve their desires yet, by the time we get to book 5, it is clear that their actual stations and selves would have more than brought them what they sought had they been patient. But the outer "disfigurement" of a Musidorus or Pyrocles and the temporarily misplaced passions of a Gynecia or Mopsa show the fallibility and foolishness of a "tyrannical" lack of restraint, rather than the criminal intentions or evil instincts of the true tyrant. They are curable: obviously so, compared to the parade of tyrants in the revised book 2, or even to the unscrupulous behavior of Cecropia and Amphialus in the revised book 3. Nancy Lindheim sees Sidney's revisions not simply as an amplification, but as a rethinking, what she also calls a "re-vision," or "something substantially new."21 In the "new" Arcadia the Phrygian citizens, supported by Musidorus, revolt against "chiefe instruments of Tyrannie" (2.9), and the prince himself demonstrates what Richard C. McCoy calls "sophisticated political insights and principles."22 In other episodes added to book 2, the blind king of Paphlagonia, also symbolically disfigured, misjudges his two sons; Plangus misjudges Erona; and Pyrocles misjudges Dido. In book 3, Cecropia misjudges Amphialus, while the "Knight of the Tomb," the "disfigured" Parthenia, is recognized by no one until her death. But all of these "uncertainties" also involve some sort of tyranny, some deeply felt need for equity. Alongside such "uncertainties," which persisted unchecked in the "old" Arcadia, Sidney's revision places the trust of the heroes and the faith of Pamela: things that, if not strictly speaking "certain," suggest something more stable than "uncertainties." These new qualities look forward to a denouement already conceived as the fifth book of the "old" Arcadia.

There are other additions too: Pamela's theology is now decidedly Calvinistic; Philoclea's character is changed, to increase the emphasis on the importance of self-knowledge. Even Basilius's emotional and unrestrained decision to besiege the castle of Amphialus—despite Kalander's counseling withdrawal while Philanax argues that the king should, in politic fashion, seem ready to serve Amphialus by offering him a pardon—suggests a kind of humanity that might have instructed Euarchus, if he only could have known of it. Basilius's decision, it will be remembered, is quickly revoked when Cecropia threatens to harm Zelmane and the princesses: Basilius acts out of love, rather than law, and the reader can sympathize with his feelings even knowing that Cecropia intends to kill one of the princesses despite their father's capitulation. Human feelings, or "passions," are just what Euarchus lacks, as Sidney tells us: "The beholders … most of them, examining the matter by their own passions, thought Euarchus (as often extraordinary excellencies, not being rightly conceived, do rather offend than please) an obstinate-hearted man, and such a one, who being pitiless, his dominion must needs be insupportable" (p. 414). Such a position opposes the one that Zelmane sets forth in advising the rebels, and that Pamela uses in confronting Cecropia, in the revised text of the Arcadia. Thus, resolution of the Arcadia, as worked out in the original book 5, is reinforced by and anticipated in the revisions of the earlier books. The old book 5 still fits in with the revisions, if a bit disjointedly; Sidney did not feel constrained to complete the revision because, in a very real sense, he already had.

But what he had also done, of course, was to show by example—by the pregnant images of life, as Greville puts it—how the virtuous knowledge taught by the Arcadia might lead directly to a virtuous exercise of that knowledge: As the Arcadia realizes in practice the theory of Sidney's Defence of Poetry, as chancery realizes in its use of equity the deep structures and original purposes of common law, so Sidney seems to have felt compelled to practice both the precepts of virtuous knowledge and the principle of equity in his own life. He did so for the sake of the Protestant cause, by following Leicester to the Low Countries to champion the Puritans against the invasion of the Catholic Spaniards. But by then his writing, thinking, actions, and politics had become a thing so compact that to mention one of them seems to be to mention them all. The steadiness of his spirit, when defending the Dutch he so admired, seems never to have flagged, not even during the black days of March 1586, when he wrote to Walsingham from Flanders,

I receav dyvers letters from yow, full of the discomfort which I see and am sorry to see that yow daily meet with at home, and I think such is the goodwil it pleaseth yow to bear me that my part of the trouble is somthing that troubles yow, but I beseech yow le[t] it not. I had before cast my count of dang[er] want and disgrace, and before God Sir it is trew [that] in my hart the love of the caws doth so far overballance them all that with Gods grace thei shall never make me weery of my resolution. If her Majesty wear the fowntain I woold fear considring what I daily fynd that we shold wax dry, but she is but a means whom God useth and I know not whether I am deceaved but I am faithfully persuaded that if she shold withdraw her self other springes woold ryse to help this action.23

His last recorded words too, after the wound at Zutphen took a turn for the worse at Arnhem, bring together naturally and succinctly all his concerns—politics, religion, mercy or equity, and poetry: "Love my memory, cherish my friends; their faith to me may assure you that they are honest. But above all govern your will and affections by the will and word of your Creator."24 This sentiment recalls old Languet, the shepherd of the first Arcadia who taught that the true harmony of spirit is "To have a feeling taste of him that sits / Beyond the heav'n, far more beyond our wits" (OA, p. 255). Poetry and politics, burned to a luster in the alchemy of a faith that transcended courtly rhetoric and even his death, became, perhaps, Sidney's greatest legacy.


1The Four Foster Children of Desire: 1581, ed. Jean Wilson in Entertainments for Elizabeth I (Woodbridge, Eng., 1980), 70.

2 Ibid., 61.

3 Introduction to The Lady of May in Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jan van Dorsten (Oxford, 1973), 17.

4 The definitive discussion of the political implications of The Lady of May is in Stephen Orgel's The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), 44-57.

5 For an argument that supports dating the Defence as early as late autumn or early winter 1579/80, see my "Parody and Its Implications in Sidney's Defence of Poesie," Studies in English Literature 12 (1972): 1-19.

6A Defence of Poetry, in Miscellaneous Prose, 73. All further references to Sidney's prose works, cited parenthetically by page number in the text, are to this edition, except the following: for the "old" Arcadia, references are to The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (The Old Arcadia), ed. Jean Robertson (Oxford, 1973); for the "new" or revised Arcadia, references are to The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, ed. Maurice Evans (Harmondsworth, Eng., 1977); for Sidney's letters, see n. 23 below.

7 The context of Sidney's remark is worth quoting in full:

If Pugliano's strong affection and weak arguments [about horsemanship] will not satisfy you, I will give you a nearer example of myself, who (I know not by what mischance) in these my not old years and idlest times having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in the defence of that my unelected vocation, which if I handle with more good will than good reasons, bear with me, since the scholar is to be pardoned that followeth the steps of his master. (Miscellaneous Prose, 73)

8 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641, abridged ed. (New York, 1967), 340-41.

9 Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (Princeton, 1981), 440.

10 James M. Osborn, Young Philip Sidney, 1572-1577 (New Haven, 1972), 70.

11 D. M. Loades, Politics and the Nation, 1450-1600: Obedience, Resistance and Public Order (1974; repr. London, 1979), 292.

12 Martin N. Raitiere, Faire Bitts: Sir Philip Sidney and Renaissance Political Theory (Pittsburgh, 1984), 74.

13 Sir William Holdsworth, A History of English Law (Boston, 1922), 2:326.

14 William Harrison, Description of England, ed. Georges Edelen (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968), 70.

15 Christopher St. German, Doctor and Student, ed. T. F. T. Plucknett and J. L. Barton, Selden Society (London, 1974), 177.

16 Quoted in Stuart E. Prall, "The Development of Equity in Tudor England," American Journal of Legal History 8 (1964): 4.

17 St. German, Doctor and Student, 95-97.

18 Edward Hake, EPIEIKEIA: A Dialogue on Equity in Three Parts, ed. D. E. C. Yale, Yale Law Library Publication 13 (New Haven, 1953), 2.

19 Hake, EPIEIKEIA, 12.

20 Victor Skretkowicz, "Building Sidney's Reputation: Texts and Editors of the Arcadia," in Sir Philip Sidney: 1586 and the Creation of a Legend, ed. Jan van Dorsten, Dominic Baker-Smith, and Arthur F. Kinney (Leiden, 1986), 116.

21 Nancy Lindheim, The Structures of Sidney's "Arcadia" (Toronto, 1982), 133.

22 Richard C. McCoy, Sir Philip Sidney: Rebellion in Arcadia (New Brunswick, N.J., 1979), 140.

23 Letter 89 in The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat (1912; repr. Cambridge, 1963), 3:166.

24 Quoted in Malcolm W. Wallace, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (Cambridge, 1915), 388.

Alan Hager (essay date 1991)

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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 and courtly—though pedantic—persona sets up distinctions and then undercuts them, most noticeably in his description of the French duke's personality. For example, his smooth "voice" juxtaposes d'Alençon's imagination as well as his personal education as prods to incite aspiration to power, but then undercuts the whole concept of such a desire: "he, both by his own fancy and by his youthful governors embracing all ambitious hopes, having Alexander's image in his head, but perchance ill painted" (52.19). In miniature this ironic procedure is a kind of rug-pulling. The reader is made to expect, by a courtly voice controlling rather majestic language, an observation about those hopes and the antithetical function of inherent imaginings as opposed to princely training—the reader is enticed onto the rug by splendid words—but then his expectations are overturned by an ironic aside about blurred portraits of Alexander and intellectual dullness.

A similar ironic undercutting, containing a reference to Ajax's huge shield in Homer, appears at the end of the letter: "And if he grow king, his defence will be like Ajax' shield, which weighed down rather than defended those that bore it" (56.30). Here the notion of unwieldy and unbearable weight undercuts the notion of kingship and lively national defense. Thus, although the work as a whole remains politely indirect about supposed flaws in the character, health, and person of d'Alençon, verbal irony delivered by our letterwriting persona pictures Monsieur as an ambitious lightweight.

Sidney balances his ironic attacks on Elizabeth's suitor with equally subtle hyperbolic images of the queen as a virtually unapproachable object of erotic worship. Undoubtedly a frank letter by contemporary standards, Sidney's letter to the queen resembles more a poem of warning and eulogy, like Spenser's "April" or "November" in The Shepheardes Calendar or Ralegh's The Ocean to Cynthia, because, while it is apparently candid and even intimate, it conveys its message poetically by means of indirection, by metaphor and complex words. If Sidney had tended to fashion a debile picture of d'Alençon by means of understatement, he opposed it to an idolatrous picture of the queen. Thus, in the words of his courtly persona, the proposed match could only have appeared faintly absurd.

The number of manuscript versions of Sidney's letter, one showing up in a seventeenth-century commonplace book under the category of "Advice,"41 attests, I think, to attention given to the form as well as to the content of the work. Besides taking a negative stance in a real or imagined marriage crisis and a positive one on the queen's rule, the letter becomes a model of tactful indirection. Lack of tact was to cost John Stubbs his right hand in the controversy following his The Discovery of Gaping Gap (1579) on the unsuitability of the French king's brother. That so many versions of Sidney's work exist may even indicate the queen's approval of its circulation. Elizabeth was wise to recognize two opposing views of every major administrative problemCsuch as the disposition of Mary, Queen of Scots, or the founding of a Protestant League, or her marriageCin order to appear to be choosing among pieces of advice rather than generating public policy on her own. If some policy failed she could shift some of its blame from her by favoring its opponents. In this case, she received a letter from Sir Thomas Cecil favoring and one from Sidney opposing the match, and neither writer seems to have suffered for it.42 Which view she came to favor is unclear, because she "tabled," in a sense, d'Alençon's proposal, after accepting it.

The wide distribution of Sidney's letter, however, creates an interesting problem for the editor at a crucial moment. At the end of an elaborate argument about the political worth of such a match, notably concerning its unlikelihood of bringing together factions in England, the recent Oxford edition reads: "So that if neither fear, nor desire, be such in him as are to bind any public fastness, it may be said that the only fortress of this your marriage is of his private affection: a thing too incident to your person, without laying it up in such ivy knots" (53.3). As if Sidney's final reservation confused his editors, many variants of the final words of this passage exist,43 the more plausible ones having "slight knots" for "ivy knots." "Slight," however, as Duncan-Jones has pointed out,44 seems to be a gloss on what ivy suggests metaphorically. Sidney constructs this letter around several familiar metaphors, of disease in the human and the body politic, the sun and the homonymous son as metaphor for kingship as well as lineage in reference to the need for a male heir, eyes that dazzle through love and authority, and the metaphor of the ship of state on turbulent seas. Here "ivy" seems more like Sidney, as does, "laying up," an archaic phrase for "twisting yarn to form a strand,"45 rather than the more clear "tying up," an occasional variant.

In these words, Sidney's persona sets up the political disadvantages of Monsieur antithetically. As the groom he could neither bind up the English factions through common fear nor common desire. Then Sidney's persona suddenly introduces the question of "private affection," tacking on the final phrase "without laying it up in such ivy knots." "Ivy knots," placed at the very end of the sentence suggests that d'Alençon's private feeling, even a marriage based on that feeling, is far too slight, delicate, untyable, breakable. The ivy knot metaphor, echoing the denial of his power "to bind any public fastness," suggests a light person. If d'Alençon seems less than ordinary, however, what an extraordinary picture Sidney the courtier-letter-writer gives of the queen in this citation. Like the unapproachable Laura of the Petrarchan sonnets, men's love is a trophy, something she enjoys from too many people—"too incident to your person"—to make it worthwhile to add the duke's, especially by the restrictive bond of marriage contract ("knot").

Clearly Sidney intends this public letter of advice to picture the queen as that remote love object, attractive, awe-inspiring for the courtier, youthful and beautiful certainly, as well as unquestionably fertile, although the queen was forty-six years old at that time. To promote such a hyperbolic image of the queen, Sidney adopts the mask of the courtier-lover, proposing to make "the true vowed sacrifice of unfeigned love" (46.13) in an epistle "only for your eyes," though secrecy could hardly have been his intention. He considers "the perfections of your body and mind" (53.9). He likens slander of the queen to "blasphemy" (55.32). Finally he suggests on successive occasions that the happiness of having children must constitute the truly "blissful" excuse for marrying. Since, however, the question of looking for an heir and controlling factions in England were crucial to the argument of the letter, Sidney gradually allows the concept of producing children to vanish by expansion into a metaphor for engendering loyal subjects. When offspring is first mentioned, Sidney's persona speaks of "the bliss of children: which, I confess, were a most unspeakable comfort" (51.7). Here, we think strictly in terms of the joys of immediate family.

When he next mentions children, Sidney places them in the equivocal political light of possibly indifferent, fickle or estranged successors to the crown, returning to the bliss of having them only as an afterthought or concession: "Virtue and justice are the only bands of the people's love. And as for that point, many princes have lost their crowns, whose own children were manifest successors; and some that had their own children used as instruments of their ruin. Not that I deny the bliss of children." (54.27). Direct offspring do not tie up the bands of people's love. Good citizens are the true progeny of "virtue and justice." As Sidney the courtier has boldly stated early in this letter, "your inward force (for as for your treasures, indeed the sinews of your crown, your Majesty doth best and only know) consisteth in your subjects" (47.16).

The final word in the piece, the complex word "posterity," however, expands into the concept of "blood lineage," children and children's children, "simply those people who follow you in England," and also "loyal subjects and children of loyal subjects" who make England a stable commonwealth or state free from civil war between religious factions. The idea of the queen bearing children thus gradually dissolves in favor of rearing the good children of loyal subjects. The letter ends, "Lastly, doing as you do, you shall be as you be: the example of princes, the ornament of this age, the comfort of the afflicted, the delight of your people, the most excellent fruit of all your progenitors, and the perfect mirror to your posterity" (57.4). Landing squarely on "posterity" is part of a strategy to move the queen—and Sidney's many other readers—from contemplation of actual offspring to the contemplation of all subjects, from peasant to courtier, as the queen's metaphoric children. Subjects are children. The word "posterity," even in the context of "progenitors," suggests the political progeny of Elizabethan England as well as actual sons and daughters. "Posterity" thus informs the work as a whole. It forces us to go back and understand Sidney's cryptic remark that he has a choice of successor already, probably in Scotland, but that son of Mary Queen of Scots is, in his opinion, a good subject, although not a direct offspring, and not, oddly, the offspring of a loyal subject. Eliza must become the mirror to all her subjects and future generations of subjects. The final word of the whole piece sends us back through the whole argument to recollect that thought.

Irony can be defined in terms of the power of ending, the power of delaying final interpretation until the last word is out, a word, perhaps, that forces the reader back to the very beginning of a text. Here "posterity" forces us to reconsider Sidney's courtly voice's reiterated concept that the queen's power chiefly resides in her loyal subjects. Of course, Sidney, the courtly adviser, has, on a dangeorus subject, said the right thing. He was not exactly a flatterer because an inflated idea of the queen, for various reasons, was considered by him and some of his friends sound public policy. Like the towering statues of a physically short Caesar Augustus, the idea of Eliza the goddess of rule and of love seemed an expedient piece of propaganda after a century of political disturbance.

Traditionally, Sidney was thought to have fallen out of favor with the queen in part because of this letter. It was even thought to have contributed to his purported "rustication"—his being sent away from court to the country, in his case, largely to Wilton. Having reexamined the evidence, Duncan-Jones asserted that, as in the case of Cecil's letter, "there is no evidence that any disfavor followed the advice."46

Like any prince, Machiavellian in the best sense of the word, as we have seen, the queen encouraged promulgation of opposing views of future decisions, as long as they were polite, so that she could appear to be selecting between sets of loyal advisers rather than operating according to a headstrong and possibly fallible monarchic "will and pleasure," the claim that sometimes marred her father's public image. Sidney himself writes Leicester from Clarindon within a year of the composition of the letter—perhaps at the height of its circulation—that he is much missed at court but would be a "very unpleasant company keeper"47 because of a heavy cold which has taken away his voice. He remarks that he is "so full of the cold as one can not heere me speake: which is the cawse keepes me yet from the courte since my only service is speeche and that is stopped."

That Sidney's "only service is speeche" may indicate that he would like bolder service, a common complaint among Elizabeth's courtiers, but the queen was wise to keep her best speakers at home, and Sidney contributed to that maneuver as propagandist. As in the case of the Augustan artists, Elizabeth's poets, kept at home—or guiltily away from home—did her the greatest service among her contemporaries and her posterity. Sidney's and others' words in their perrenial appeal, did her image the ultimate propagandistic favor. Sidney's works, however, were preserved because he had more to say, in this case, his development of the paradox of progeny. He dismisses with gentle irony the direct progeny "of the Jezebel of our age" (48.6), the son of Catherine de Medici, and he opposes the notion of possibly ungrateful children with that of the good subject.


41 See Miscellaneous Prose, p. 39.

42 Ibid., p. 36.

43 Ibid., pp. 42-43. [Katherine] Duncan-Jones uses this passage to highlight the "manuscript tradition" (42).

44 Ibid., p. 43.

45 Ibid. Duncan-Jones quotes OED.

46 Ibid., p. 36. For a contrary position, see King, "Queen Elizabeth I," p. 50.

47 Feuillerat, vol. 3, p. 1 2 9 ….

Sally Minogue (essay date 1996)

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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 an actual courtier to Elizabeth rather than a court hanger-on).1 Sidney was in that position in both 1580 and 1581; but those dates punctuate a period when at least some commentators see him as having been banished from Court because of pressing too strongly the case against Elizabeth's possible marriage to Alençon.2 Given that in 1579 John Stubbs had had his writing hand amputated for an over-fierce public attack on the Alençon suit (a medievally brutish form of retributive censorship), Sidney must have known when he was preparing the Alençon letter that his favored position was at the very least at risk, if not his own person; at that point he clearly thought the risk worth taking.3 The long period of rustication which followed the delivery of the letter (according to most authorities, late in 1579), was perhaps signalled by his being pushed down to the very end of the New Year's gift rolls in 1580, and it evidently led him to reflect more fully on the Queen's authority.4 Sidney's 1581 gift looks like a sign of his recognition of Elizabeth's absolute power over him, a witty, coded self-abasement, an acceptance that such power was the necessary accompaniment of a royal favor which he was pleased to have, against the odds, sustained or retrieved.5 The teasing nature of such a gift does however imply a closeness of relationship with Elizabeth not typically attributed to Sidney; its symbolic nature is in keeping with the fashion of the time, but there is a self-conscious and personal dimension which does fit with what we know of Sidney's wit.6 Here I shall look at two of the sonnets from Astrophil and Stella, 9 and 83, and suggest a reading of them as poetic versions of the jewelled whip, dramatizing both the public monarch-courtier relationship between Elizabeth and Sidney and a possible private relationship where at least the rhetoric of sexual subjection is used at once playfully and not-so-playfully. In sonnet 9, I will suggest, Sidney prostrates himself; in sonnet 83, he gives the Queen a speaking part and foretells his own possible political fate. The diamond sparkle of his wit, somewhat darker in the second poem, does not disguise, indeed it deliberately highlights, that he is under the whip.

Of particular interest to me in these readings is that, even while they seem to fall in with some of the current patterns of Renaissance criticism, they also cut against new orthodoxies insofar as they place Elizabeth as a woman firmly at the center of Sidney's poetic practice, and they also posit a Sidney showing signs through these sonnets of the frustration which resulted from his required submissiveness, a frustration which seems to have hardened later into positive dissent. My argument is conducted in terms not of discourse, but of materiality; it is realist and empiricist; in this I seek to add my voice to those which are now beginning to question the politics of new historicism. M. D. Jardine has convincingly demonstrated the potentially politically reactionary nature of certain versions of new historicism, arguing that:

it is now more important than ever that critics on the left argue strenuously for the presence of competing sets of values and practices, before human struggle to overthrow systems which kept them from power is removed from our record of the past.7

While I recognize the ironies involved in attempting to answer this call by emphasizing the radical dimension of a period of monarchy, and identifying the "human struggle to overthrow systems which kept them from power" in the sullen dissent of at least a sort of aristocrat, I nonetheless believe it important to describe and identify correctly the contributions to change made by a female sovereign on the one hand, and by the courtier-poet who had perhaps the greatest influence on the English poetic tradition on the other.

The various historical, critical, and (new and old) historical-critical accounts of Sidney's relationship with Elizabeth during the crucial period 1580-82, and of the writing (and reading) of Sidney's sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, contain tensions, uncertainties, and flat contradictions which may be more than the product of the problematic nature of historical inquiry. Sidney's relationship with his Queen seems itself to have been shot through with like ambiguities. While some argue that Wilton was an alternative Court and center of culture, it may also be seen as his retreat in times of disfavor. Sidney may be seen as powerless except for his potential inheritances from his uncles, or as having a sense of aristocratic and cultural power and position sufficient to allow him to forfeit royal patronage in favor of being himself a patron. As far as the poems themselves were concerned, there is no clear agreement about whether Astrophil and Stella circulated amongst the Court elite, or was private to Sidney himself, and so without an audience until after his death (and so no agreement about whether Elizabeth might have read any of the sonnets, and so whether they can now be read as contemporary appeals to Elizabeth's favor). With some of these issues it is impossible to determine what was the case, though this has not stopped critics from doing so, usually without cognizance that there might be a question mark.8 For new historicists of the post-structuralist camp, the question mark has been elevated into the signifier sine qua non;9 while new historicists of the cultural materialist stamp allow a little more room for maneuver, and indeed a little more room for actual history, though for most of them the dominant ideology is still in the end dominant, leaving no real possibility of change in the existing power relations.10

I shall argue that, while Sidney was himself torn between various ways of seeing and presenting himself, between early 1580 and at least the end of 1581, he recognized the need for submission to the Queen before all else.11 He spends most of 1580 at Wilton, languishing in the Queen's disfavor; in a letter to Leicester in the August of 1580 he laments his loss of voice with the Queen, while also bemoaning his poverty; he submits with the New Year's gift in 1581; around July of that year he loses the heirdom to Leicester through the birth of Leicester's direct heir; in November of that year Penelope Rich marries and Alençon arrives again to pursue his suit, linking the defeat of Sidney's personal and political hopes; arguably, in the November Accession Day tilts, he appears wearing the crossed-through SPERAVI, signalling his public awareness of his lost hopes; and finally in late 1581 he is offered the prospect of some money from Elizabeth, but through a problematic avenue, the income from the forfeited goods of Papists—and still no position. This looks, presented thus baldly, like a very public and also a very private humiliation—shortly after which he probably begins writing Astrophil and Stella. The sonnets I shall examine reflect the bitternesses and tensions Sidney had experienced, but also reflect the inevitability of submission. In the light of the historical circumstances it is difficult to deny the presence of England's brightest female star behind the Stella to whom Sidney subjects himself in this sequence. Yet ultimately, the way in which he spent the last few years of his life, and the manner of his death, suggest that he kicked against the Queen's supremacy, knowingly at the cost of his ambition and, as it happened, his life. Writing was one alternative form of power for him: the courtly love format which he uses so flexibly enabled him to express the complexity of his submission to a monarch who was also a woman, and gave him the imaginative control as author to compensate for the political control he lacked as courtier. At the same time, in at least the poems I shall examine, Elizabeth is accorded her actual identity as a fleshly woman, through sometimes explicitly sexual language, and this I see as extending rather than diminishing her power.

There is ample evidence in sonnet 9 of reference to someone more powerful, and indeed richer, than the supposed model of Stella, Penelope Rich. The first and third words of the sonnet are "Queen" and "court," and they sandwich the personified "Vertue," which we can read explicitly as Elizabeth's virginity, raised into something larger than itself (as indeed by this time it was, her childbearing capacities weighing clearly upon her advisers', and others', attitudes to the proposed match with Alençon), or as a more generalized goodness or good, which here might be construed ethically or politically. Elizabeth had to be "good"; but she was also good for her country. "Which some call Stella's face" seems deliberately to distance the author from those "some" (suggesting he has in mind another, Elizabeth). The cold images of virginity which multiply—alabaster, pearl, marble, "without touch"Cmix paradoxically with the images of elaborate riches. The gold, porphir, and "locke of pearl" are precious petrifications of parts of the body (hair, lips, teeth). The Grace which "sometimes comes forth" from the pearl-locked mouth is that all too unreliable monarch's favor. Sidney/Astrophil, for all his power as writer of these lines, is indeed a "poore I" in comparison. He is touched (emotionally, sexually, persnally) by a woman, but without actually being touched; and though himself touched (affected), cannot touch back (physically, as well as in terms of influence).

If Sidney were writing only to Penelope Rich, or to some fictional Stella, or in a generalized way to a poetically conventional woman, it could be said that the element of power which the woman in the poem has over him would be outweighed both by his power as writer of the poetic fiction, and by the particular way in which in this poem the fleshliness of the woman is turned into stone and she is withdrawn even from the humanizing power of touch. One is reminded of Midas. But if it is Elizabeth who is addressed here, it is Astrophil who is petrified rather than Stella. The valuable metal and stone cease to be emblems; they are rather the natural accoutrements of a female monarch. That is not to say that they are not also used emblematically; but they are used by Sidney with a nice sense of the ironic interplay between what they actually are and what, poetically and politically, they represent. The alabaster, gold, porphyry and marble might be the materials which actually are part of "Queen Vertue's court," with her privy chamber locked away behind those rich, promising porches, impenetrable except to her favorites. She can look out of its windows, but they may not look in, without her permission. There are a number of interesting references to windows in the documentary evidence surrounding Elizabeth; certainly Essex's 1591 letter to Elizabeth comes to mind, where he says that "no cause but a great action of your own may draw me out of your sight, for the two windows of your privy chamber shall be the poles of my sphere".12

Immediately one sees the sexual reading available here, as one can also in sonnet 9; both are made possible only because Elizabeth was a woman, and moreover one who used her sexual powers as part of her royal ones. But the sexual reading is interdependent with that in which access to the royal person means power, and where denial of that access renders the supplicant powerless. Essex is at the time of writing still in favor, indeed in touch; but even so his letter goes on to imagine a time when favor might be denied, and to predict his unwavering, indeed requisite, subjection in such a case. Sidney does not need to imagine it: the queen "without touch doth touch".

That Sidney's is the first sonnet sequence in English is often remarked, as is its influence, post-publication, on English poetry. The connection of such love poetry with political patronage is now seen as almost as well established, to the point where we are asked to recognize that "'love is not love'" in Elizabethan "love" poetry.13 Elizabeth's profound influence on court culture goes without saying. There are a number of interpretations of Sidney's sonnets which put these factors together and offer "patronage" readings of the poems, or of the sequence as a whole. But I want to suggest that sonnet 9 is not just a patronage—or more properly, clientageC—poem, it is also, and first, a love poem. For if love is not love in such poems, what is? Patronage readings such as Marotti's, and John Barrell's of Shakespeare's sonnets, attempt, as they would have it, to foreground a particular sense of "love" and to thereby privilege a political reading; but in their actual practice they render the foregrounded reading as somehow free-floating, disconnected from what would once have been called the primary sense and reading.14 Yet the very notion of foregrounding or privileging a sense depends on some concept of hierarchy in the first place, a hierarchy thus being displaced. Indeed Barrell makes this clear:

I have tried to defamiliarise the word—to specify out of all of its possible and various and compound meanings one which most clearly represents it as a part of the discourse of patronage, and most clearly removes it from the meanings we most readily attach to the word today.15

"Defamiliarise" and "the meanings we most readily attach" clearly suggest a commonly recognized primary meaning, though of course Barrell would argue that this is historically and culturally specific. But can we really be so confident that there was no similar sense of "love" in the sixteenth century? Is it not the case that the coded client/patron appeals are dependent on a prior understanding of the common use of the word "love"? If Marotti, Barrell, and many others who take the same critical line, are suggesting that sixteenth-century readers, unlike late twentieth-century readers (excluding literary critics), of these poems would see the patronage reading as primary, on the surface of the poem, then any notion of a code disappears. If we preserve the notion of a code—one which seems to be inherent in discussions of Renaissance culture, old and new historicist alike—then we have to see the metaphorical or hidden sense of the poem, and of the word "love," as dependent upon a prior sense.16

What that sense is I and all my contemporary readers are familiar with; Sidney also seems to have been familiar with it, when he remarks disparagingly of English "love" poetry:

But truly many of such writings as come under the banner of unresistible love, if I were a mistress, would never persuade me they were in love: so coldly they apply fiery speeches.17

As this makes clear, the rhetoric of love was no guarantee of the actuality or the sincerity of the emotion; but that it was that emotion which was in question does not itself seem to be questioned by Sidney here. Jonathan Crewe reads Marotti as seeing the code of love rhetoric as being a sort of Elizabethan courtier back-slang, but back-slang is itself dependent on awareness of generally accepted meanings, since it works by reversing them.18 With a word as important and extensive in its senses as "love," it looks as though even those in on the code might—indeed must—have sustained some usage of the word "love" in its non-patronage sense.19

The interpretation of the import of the word "love" in Elizabethan poetry is made less rather than more complicated by the fact that the chief patron of the period was a woman. Marotti recognizes early in his argument that Elizabeth's unmarried state, and therefore, a fortiori, her being biologically a woman, "preserved her symbolic and real value in both domestic and international transactions."20 However, he is reluctant to see the amorous language "specifically encouraged" by her in her courtiers' addresses to her as anything other than a metaphorizing of "ambition and vicissitudes."21 Yet we know that Elizabeth numbered amongst those courtiers a succession of men, ambiguously termed her "favorites", whose relations with her are marked by an intimacy of access and of language. Is there no distinction between the amorous language they use, and that used as a formal code? Marotti appears to think not, since he cites Essex's vocabulary in that mode as showing that "he utilized the same politically-invested language of love" as Sir Christopher Hatton's.22 Yet Marotti pours contempt on Hatton's fulsome writing to her "in the idiom of a Petrarchan lover separated from his mistress," suggesting that his are "fanciful words for an astute politician."23 Well, if Marotti is right, they are far from fanciful if what they actually express is encoded ambition; but Marotti's own words here give the lie to his thesis for his seeing Hatton's Petrarchan rhetoric as fanciful shows that the rhetoric at least depends on a prior reading, of love as—well, love. Marotti's apparent embarrassment arises from words which, even if they are metaphorical, still inescapably hold their primary meaning, And his embarrassment, echoed elsewhere in various historians' and critics' patent discomfort at the thought of an ageing Elizabeth flirting, if even in a coded way, with her young men, betrays an anxiety about seeing Elizabeth as a sexual being at all. Wallace MacCaffrey, for example, nudges coyly:

On the lips of Dudley and Hatton, contemporaries of the queen, the language of knightly homage, the conventional praise of feminine beauty, tripped forth lightly, but when the devotee was a young man of twenty and the lady had rounded fifty, the fiction was harder to sustain.24

Crewe, writing from a very different perspective, and trying to hide his prejudices behind an arch knowingness, nonetheless falls into the same stereotyping, sympathizing with "the painful indecorum of [Sidney's] having to court, for obviously political reasons, an ugly old rich woman, becoming the Miss Havisham of the English world by the 1580s."25 MacCaffrey's very recent account doesn't even allow Elizabeth a personal response from her equals in age; and neither male interpreter can stomach the possibility that a younger man could have feelings towards a considerably older woman which were other than self-interested.

The haste to read the amorous addresses to Elizabeth as expressive of exclusively political desire effectively robs her of her power as a woman. Not surprisingly it has taken a woman, Philippa Berry, to show the process whereby Renaissance scholars were able

to displace the fundamental problem of the queen's gender. Perceived as both more and less than a woman, because a woman supposedly purged of sexual desire, she is either asserted or implied to reinforce rather than disturb the political and religious hierarchies of the patriarchy.26

Berry is arguing from a feminist perspective, and her interest at this stage of her argument is in revealing the way in which Elizabeth's relations with other women have thus been left out of account by Renaissance scholarship; but her closely argued view that Elizabeth's presence on the English throne "was a radical event" also allows us the freedom to give Elizabeth's sexuality a key place in her monarchy.27 This in no way, in my view, weakens her power and its radical nature, but rather adds to those. It is quite evident from the length and nature of Elizabeth's reign, and in particular her manipulation of her (supposed) chastity, that she used, and was not used by, her sexual powers as part of her political powers. But to argue therefore that her sexual feelings and the sexual feelings of others about her never themselves came into play is reductive and unrealistic.

Elizabeth's own writings are inevitably short of evidence on this matter; she was an ever-cautious monarch. The tender intimacy of address which marks her correspondence with those she favored has an air of vulnerability which perhaps derives from its very disparity with her position, but it is counter-balanced by her fury when she was displeased. The only work we have of hers which seems to speak imaginatively of love is "I grieve and dare not show my discontent," generally seen as expressing her state of conflict on the failure of the Alençon suit.28 Though it draws on some of the standard images and paradoxes of the love poetry of the time, it is impressive in its honesty in declaring feelings intended to be hidden by a public behavior that is itself revealed as a sham in the poem. There is a rhythmic shift in the second stanza, where the second and fourth lines adopt an eleventh syllable to produce an ending which in these circumstances of authorship it is perhaps not derogatory to call feminine. The unsettling produced by this small shift (regularity is restored in the final stanza) and the desire for an improbable escape from the ever-present "care" expressed in the wistful "Some gentler passion slide into my mind" again suggest a vulnerability which is particularly moving given the authorship. Since Elizabeth precisely addresses the conflict between personal feeling and public behavior here, her use of "love" would seem to be apolitical, since it is contrasted with "seem to hate," the latter which she is "forced" to do by the needs of the political situation. (The suggestion that the poem was actually addressed to the errant Essex would carry the same reading, though in that case the grief would seem more personal and more credible.)29

But if Elizabeth herself is unable to be more explicit than this rather generalized poem about her personal emotions and desires (and the frankness is even so such that it is difficult to imagine what if any, audience she had in mind, other than herself), those who addressed her, in however coded a form, could be very explicit. If we accept the possibility that the Queen might have been central to Sidney's imagination when he composed some of the Astrophil and Stella sonnets (as Marotti's argument entails, and which Crewe sees almost as an old hat cover story to protect the real imaginative inspiration of the poems, Sidney's sister Mary Herbert), those poems which admit of a clearly sexual reading, among others, are particularly interesting.30 Firstly, they show that at least the erotic sense of "love" is in play as well as a politically metaphorizing sense of it, and that therefore that sense of "love" can co-exist with its own metaphor. Such a double reading is hardly surprising in Renaissance poetry (and certainly not in Sidney's poetry, which yields many examples of what Daniel Traister calls his "ambidexterity"), yet it is one which those who want to insist that "love is not love" want to deny.31 Secondly, these poems specifically associate this eroticism with Elizabeth in a way that is not just "ostensible" (Marotti's word) or "hollow" (Crewe in summarizing Marotti and other new historicists).32 To return to sonnet 9, and to the word "touch"; it is used four times, three of them in the same line, as though the repetitions of the word could replace the missing actuality. From the myriad senses of "touch" available to Sidney, "magnet" is that most often used in the reading of his complex metaphor; but it seems more likely that he is referring to touchpowder, with himself as the straw about to be ignited. This reading fits with the use of "touch" as a euphemism for sexual contact, and accords with the excitability of the writing in the latter part of the poem.33 It would be in keeping with the highly paradoxical nature of the whole poem and of the image of the woman's blowing both hot and cold that the sense of "touch" as touchstone, index of value, both materially and morally, is invoked. Does not this mixture of apparently contradictory meanings exactly fit the Elizabeth who drew suitors and favorites with the promise of her chastity (the promise being that they would be victorious over it) and kept them desiring while she remained desirable? There is of course a bitter side to such a relationship, and that is hinted at but not fully expressed in the self-denigrating images ("nothing such," "poore I," "straw"); and it is difficult not to be reminded of Freud's toothed vagina in the image of the door of red porphyry which is locked with pearl. But the somewhat unpleasant combination of sensuality and petrification, the sense of inflamedness with no mutual conflagration, is perhaps retrieved by the author's complete obeisance in the poem. He admires, desires, accepts; for it is the "Queene" who is at the head of the poem, and he, the "straw," at its, and her, foot.

If we move to sonnet 83 we see Sidney's bitterness much more fully in playCand as many commentators have noted, Sidney tends to "play" when he is most serious. Sonnet 83 has received relatively little attention, and where it has, the notion that the poem is addressed to Penelope Rich's sparrow "Philip" seems to be generally accepted. In fact much more noticeable is the self-referential element involved through the use of the name "Philip" and the playful diminutive "Sir Phip."34 As soon as one sees the poem as therefore an address to the self, either from the self, or in the persona and voice of another, it becomes extremely interesting. For here the author's view of himself is overt, in a way seldom allowed in this most layered of sonnet sequences. In a letter to his uncle Leicester in 1580, during the period of his rustication, Sidney comments bitterly on the fact that if he returns to court, necessarily therefore in finery, the queen will assume from his silk doublet that all is well with him; he argues that anyway he has a cold and has lost his voice, "which is the only cawse keeps me from court since my only service is speech and that is stopped."35 I am not the only one to see the double meanings here; but while Sidney was then writing in a position where he may still have had hope of regaining his queen's favor, as he seems whole-heartedly to have set out to do in his ironic submissiveness from the beginning to the end of 1581, sonnet 83 is likely to have been written from a position of hopelessness. The stopping of speech is here envisaged both in the comparing himself to a dumb creature, the sparrow, and in, finally, the threat of his neck being wrung. The sexual echoes of "billing" and indeed of "speech" itself reverberate here. My suggestion is that here Sidney is dramatizing Elizabeth's role in the sequence and in his own life by allowing her characteristic voice and view to speak in the poem. Sidney above all others would enjoy the irony of controlling the speech of his sovereign, at the very point when his voice can least be heard. The control is entirely literary—even to the point of again placing himself as the victim at the end of the poem, but here a victim not just of desire but of that final power of the monarch, the power of life and death.

A sort of ghastly wit pervades the poem, accompanying a sense of threat. One has encountered that sense of threat before, in Elizabeth's poems and letters, just as one has encountered those sometimes sinisterly playful tendresses and diminutives. It is impossible to establish Sidney's direct knowledge of those texts, but it is certain that he was fully acquainted with Elizabeth's style. The familiarity of "Good brother Philip" and "sir Phip" recalls "My Wat" of Elizabeth's "Ah silly pug" (which phrase itself finds an echo in "your silly selfe" in sonnet 83), and the tone of both poems is remarkably similar, characterized most clearly by affectionate impatience. (Accepting that May is right in pinning Elizabeth's poem to Ralegh to 1587, I am not attributing a direct influence, but noting the similarity of tone and language which suggests Sidney's knowledge of Elizabeth and ability to coin her style.)36 Sidney's poem has the sharper edge, however; while Elizabeth's is offering reassurance after a quarrel, sonnet 83 promises a quick despatch after a period of indulgence. The final line of both poems recalls a much earlier poem of Elizabeth's, "The doubt of future foes," where, after expressing uncertainty and vulnerability of the same kind, and in the same formal antitheses, as found in "On Monsieur's Departure," she issues a clear and shockingly graphic warning to her enemies in the final couplet:

Our rusty sword with rest, shall first his edge employ
To poll their tops that seek such change and gape for joy.37

The crudity of "poll their tops" (the words and the threat) and the horrid ambiguity of "gape for joy" (which suggests the foolish gaping to a future different from that provided by Elizabeth, equivalent to the physical gaping of the mouth in the polled head) leave us in no doubt about the monarch's acceptance of necessary responsibility in executing her enemies where necessary. We are reminded of the bloody retribution to Stubbs. Sidney needed no reminding, and his sonnet 83 seems to reflect literarily what he might have feared his fate to be literally. Perhaps the setting it down in words might have absolved him of his fear; and perhaps he was aware of Elizabeth's view, explicit in the poem to Ralegh, "The less afraid the better shalt thou speed."

It is interesting to consider the possibility that Elizabeth read sonnet 83, and that Sidney wrote it knowing she might read it. If so, it is a daring expression of knowledge of the sovereign, while remaining a document of utter submission in its self-knowledge and its awareness of impotence. Add to this the erotic dimension of the poem (fully explicated by Traister who takes the "sparrow" reading) and it strikes as an act at once of arrogant folly and of self-abasement. If we do/can read the poem as expressing Elizabeth's view (filtered through Sidney's) of her relations with the courtier-poet, even as it wields a monarch's power ("Lest off your neck be wrung") it also suggests at least a period of remarkable indulgence. The octet refers to a period of considerable intimacy ("I was content you should in favor creep") dependent on the author's recognition of his position ("While craftily you seemed your cut to keepe"); there is even the suggestion of sexual intimacy ("oft suffered you to sleep In Lilies' nest, where love's self lies along"—and "love" here can be taken in both ways, sexual and political). But the sestet, following the convention, signals an abrupt change of tone: "What, doth high place ambitious thoughts augment? Is sawcinesse reward of curtesie?". Elizabeth was notoriously furious with those who overstepped the bounds of their favor; and this might be a direct reference to Sidney's injudicious letter advising avoidance of the marriage to Alençon. True impatience cuts through in "Cannot such grace your silly selfe content, But you must needs with those lips billing be?". This is the tone of one who knows the value of "grace" to one who is still caught up with "billing." Of course, all billing would cease, sexual, poetic, political, or otherwise, if the threat of the final line were carried out.

In mid-1581, the birth of a baby ended at least part of Sidney's aristocratic hopes, and later that year Alençon was back in England, his suit still encouraged by Elizabeth. Both events must have underlined Sidney's sense of his own impotence, where once he had promised to be so potent. His humiliation, partly at his own hands, culminated in December 1581 with his havering over accepting monies from the Queen (which he had begged) issuing from the revenues of the forfeited estates of recusant Catholics. Conscience, poverty and self-aggrandizement jostle on the page, and these letters do not make entirely comfortable reading.38 Yet in 1582 Sidney was at work on a different sort of writing, cheerfully dramatizing pursuit and self-abasement in Astrophil and Stella. Sonnet 83 can be seen as the literary equivalent of Sidney's appearing. perhaps at the 1581 November Accession Day tilts, with his insignia SPERAVI crossed through.39 That public and theatrical self-irony, probably in front of Alençon, whose presence would further underscore his crossed-through hopes, personal and political, somehow turned a humiliation into a victory. Astrophil and Stella seems to me to do the same, telling a story of vicissitude and despair with a wit and poetic bravado which have given it a lasting glamor. That the fate Sidney made for himself, turning away from a slow death by submission to what no doubt seemed an endless one by septicaemia, was translated from its squalid reality into a glorious story is a final, literary, irony he would have, grimly, enjoyed. But his touchy Queen had the last political word, delaying his grandiose funeral to a time when it suited her (to distract the public from the execution of Mary Queen of Scots)—and then refusing to pay the expenses. In the meantime, Astrophil and Stella retains its power as a canonized work, but one which is falsified if we do not see the breadth and complication of Sidney's relationship with Elizabeth as reflected in it. That Elizabeth was a source—the source—of cash and status is part of his poetic self-abasement, as I have tried to argue in the discussion of sonnet 9; but the sense of his personal engagement with his feelings about her, and of his submissiveness to her, are most clearly expressed in the sexual dimension of the sequence, as I have argued in discussing sonnet 83. Anger about both is central to the passion of the sequence.

To argue that "love is not love" in Elizabethan sonnet sequences, and specifically in Sidney's, is to deny the power of Elizabeth's being a woman, and thus the radical nature of her period of power. It is also to deny her influence as a woman on some of the major literary productions of the era. Finally it is to deny Sidney his many-levelled self-awareness in at least some poems in the sequence. The best we can do as critics and as readers of history is to see the complex picture as fully as possible, given that we cannot possibly recoup a full understanding of what the contemporary history of Sidney and Elizabeth was. To insist that "love is not love" is to falsify that complexity, just as surely as it would be to insist that love is only love; it is one of the powers of literary production that, in the case of Astrophil and Stella, both may be true.


1 Steven May, The Elizabethan Courtier Poets: The Poems and Their Contexts (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1991), 22. May uses presence on the New Year gift rolls as a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for courtier status.

2 Dorothy Connell, Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker's Mind (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 107; F. J. Levy, "Sidney Reconsidered," in Essential Articles for the Study of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1986), 5; for a counter-view see May, 98.

3 On Stubbs, see John Stubbs's "Gaping Gulf" with Letters and Other Relevant Documents, ed. Lloyd E. Berry (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1968).

4 Katherine Duncan-Jones interprets this push to the end of the gift rolls as a possible sign of disapproval, Sir Philip Sidney (London: Penguin, 1991), 169, quoting Progresses of Queen Elizabeth, ed. J. G. Nichols, 1823.

5 William Ringler interprets it as signalling submission specifically over the Alençon suit (The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler Jr. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962], 440). Duncan-Jones interprets it as a sign of a more extensive submission, as I do, and she provides convincing evidence of this, 192-93. Neither commentator sees the more intimate, perhaps sexual, element in the representative gift which I am here suggesting. All references to Astrophil and Stella are from Ringler's edition.

6 See Alan Hager, "The Exemplary Mirage: Fabrication of Sir Philip Sidney's Biographical Image and the Sidney Reader," in Kinney, especially 23-24, for an interesting analysis of Sidney's "reflexive irony." See also Duncan-Jones's description of "his readiness to quip even in the most stressful circumstances" (290).

7 M. D. Jardine, "New Historicism for Old: New Conservatism for Old?: The Politics of Patronage in the Renaissance," The Yearbook of English Studies 21 (1991), 293-94.

8 Even the question of circulation, which might seem to be answerable by reference to historical record, attracts contradictory, confident, assertions. See Ringler, and May who follows him, for the view that the sonnets were entirely private to Sidney; most other critics adopt the generalized view of a small elite manuscript circulation. Others again would see the question as irrelevant. There is no direct evidence of circulation prior to the 1591 publication.

9 For example, Gary F. Waller, "The Rewriting of Petrarch: Sidney and the Languages of Sixteenth-Century Poetry," in Sir Philip Sidney and the Interpretation of Renaissance Culture, ed. Gary F. Waller and Michael D. Moore (London: Croom Helm, 1984).

10 For example, Laura Stevenson, Praise and Paradox: Merchants and Craftsmen in Elizabethan Popular Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 1984).

11 Levy provides a persuasive account of Sidney as torn between allegiance to God and allegiance to the Queen.

12Lives and Letters of the Devereux, ed. Walter B. Devereux. 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1857), 1: 249-50.

13 Arthur Marotti, "'Love is not Love': Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order," ELH 49 (1982): 396-428.

14 John Barrell, Poetry, Language and Politics (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1988), 18-43.

15 Barrell, 23-24.

16 See Jonathan Crewe, Hidden Designs: The Critical Profession and Renaissance Literature (London: Methuen, 1986), 76-88, for an interesting and amusing discussion of the levels of "encryptment" in Sidney's sonnets.

17 From The Defence of Poesy, in Miscellaneous Prose of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones and J. van Dorsten (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 117.

18 Crewe, 76.

19 See Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas." History and Theory 8 (1969): 3-53, for an authoritative account of the falsifications produced in the historical analysis of texts by anachronistically attributing concepts to authors; ironically, the new historicists who started out by issuing similar caveats have ended by falling into the very trap they warned against. Skinner places a premium on establishing authorial intention, whilst reminding us of the problems involved in doing so. David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), notes the reluctance of materialist and post-structuralist critics to acknowledge any role for intention, and warns that "to ignore the intention is effectively to depoliticise" (8).

20 Marotti, 398; italics in original.

21 Marotti, 398.

22 Marotti, 398.

23 Marotti, 398, 399.

24 Wallace MacCaffrey, Elizabeth I (London: Edward Arnold, 1993), 396.

25 Crewe, 80.

26 Philippa Berry, Of Chastity and Power: Elizabethan Literature and the Unmarried Queen (London: Routledge, 1989), 65.

27 Berry, 61.

28 In Elizabeth I, ed. Lacey Baldwin Smith (St. Louis: Forum Press, 1980), 57-58.

29 Suggested in a footnote to the poem, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th edition, ed. M. H. Abrams, 2 vols. (London: Norton, 1993), 1:998.

30 Alan Sinfield, "Sexual Puns in Astrophil and Stella." Essays in Criticism 24 (1974), has argued convincingly for the presence of sexual puns throughout Sidney's sonnet sequence, and notes that "sexual double entendre is an important feature of Sidney's verbal skill" (6).

31 Daniel Traister, "Sidney's Purposeful Humor: Astrophil and Stella 59 and 83." ELH 49 (1982), 751.

32 Marotti, 406; Crewe, 75.

33 Sinfield notes this euphemistic reading, 346-47.

34 Duncan-Jones mentions this self-referential reading, 242.

35The Prose Works of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, 4 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), 3:129.

36 For the text of Elizabeth's poem and May's dating discussion see May, 317-19.

37The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse, ed. Emrys Jones (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), 183-84.

38 See especially the letters of December, 1581, to Sir Christopher Hatton and to the Earl of Leicester respectively, in Feuillerat, 139 and 140.

39 Duncan-Jones argues effectively for this date, though she also mentions counter-arguments, 194-95 and 218.

Peter C. Herman (essay date 1996)

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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, Edward Denny, for a list of books that an educated man should read.25 On October 18, 1580, Sidney wrote a similar, though less formal letter to his brother Robert that deals with the same issues.26

Taking the Denny letter first, the key difference between the Denny letter and the Apology is that Sidney excludes poetry entirely from his list. Even though in the Apology Sidney strenuously argues that poetry teaches virtue better than any other discipline, Sidney recommends no poetry whatsoever to his friend. Homer and Vergil, Petrarch and Sannazaro, Chaucer, Gower, Dante, Amadis de Gaul, the Mirrour For Magistrates, and the Earl of Surrey's lyrics, even the Arthurian legends, all are conspicuously absent.

Even further, Sidney transfers to philosophy and to history precisely those qualities which in the Apology assured poetry's superiority to its competitors. Sidney commences his letter by dividing the pursuit of knowledge into two parts: "the one as concerninge our selves, the other an outward application of our selves" (538). For spiritual knowledge, Sidney recommends that Denny read the Bible and "some parts of morall philosophy" (538), especially Aristotle's "Ethickes." Recognizing that Aristotle (then as now) "is something darke and hath need of a Logicall examination" (538), Sidney directs his friend to Cicero's De Officiis and to some of Plutarch's discourses.27 Although Sidney clearly approves of Plutarch, his passion for Cicero is such that he ranks him (not Vergil or Homer) second only to the Bible: "But let Tully be for that mater your foundation, next to the foundation of foundations, and wisdome of wisdomes, I mean the holy scripture" (539). This evaluation of Cicero and Plutarch radically differs from his dismissal of philosophy in the Apology as "hard of utterance and … misty to be conceived" (27) and of philosophers as: "coming towards me with a sullen gravity, as though they could not abide vice by daylight, rudely clothed for to witness outwardly their contempt of outward things, with books in their hands against glory, whereto they set their names, sophistically speaking against subtlety" (23-24).

The divergences between these texts can be partially (but only partially) resolved through Sidney's implicit distinction in the Denny letter between the moral philosophy of antiquity and their scholastic followers ("these men casting largesse as they go of definitions, divisions, and distinctions" [24]). He mentions the former, but not the latter. Even so, Sidney declines to make this distinction in the Apology. Furthermore, even though Sidney claims in his defense that Alexander "received more bravery of mind by the pattern of Achilles than by hearing the definition of fortitude" (61), Sidney urges his friend—a soldier—to read Aristotle's Ethics, Cicero's De Officiis, and Plutarch's discourses for images of "what [it] is to be truly iuste, truly vallyant, rightly temperate, & rightly friendly, with their annexed quallityes and contraryes" (538), not the Odyssey, the Illiad, or Aeneid.

In the next section, Sidney prescribes the books appropriate for "the trade of our lives," and since his friend has chosen the military life, Sidney recommends that he read books "that profess the arte [of soldiery], & in historyes" (539), that is, "Langeai in french, and Machievall in Italian" (539), but he quickly breaks off discussion since, as he freely admits, he has very little expertise in this area: "Of [other books] I will say noe further, for I am witness of myne owne ignoraunce" (539). The latter category commands more of Sidney's attention, and his bibliography stretches from antiquity to the Renaissance:

[Y]ou shoold begin with Philip Melanchthons Chronolgy, so to Justine, then to Herodotus, Thucidides, Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius, Polybius, Lyvy, Dionisius, Salust, Ca'sar, Dion, Tacitus, & then the Emperours lyves, gathered together in a volume by Henricus Stephanus. Then to take Zonaras, & Nicetas, for the Greek parts, & Procopius; and from thence to fall lower, to the particular chronicles of eche country, as Paulus Aemilius for France, Polidore for Englande, and soe of the rest. But because this might seeme too longe, though in deed not soe longe, as a man woold thinke, my councell to you is even to being with our english Cronicle, sett out by Hollinshead; which you shoold reed thorow till you came to Edwarde the thirdes lyfe, then to take Froyssart. After him Anguetard of Monstrelett, written in old frenche, after him Philip de Commines, & then Guicciardin who reach almost to our tyme. And these will serve your turne for historicall matters. (539)

Sidney's treatment of history in this passage departs in two important ways from the Apology. First, in the Apology Sidney undermines the authority of historians by asserting that they rely "upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay" (24); but in the Denny letter no trace remains of these doubts over the historians' ability to accurately recover the past. Quite the opposite, for Sidney urges Denny to read military handbooks and history along-side each other because the gnosis of the former complements the praxis of the latter: "The first [military manuals] shewes what should be done, the other [histories] what hath bene done" (539; my emphasis). Works on military science and philosophy may have replaced poetry as sources of images depicting ideal behavior, but the ideal must be balanced with reality, and for that Denny must turn to history.

Regardless of Sidney's deconstruction of the historians' claim to firm grounding, he argues throughout the Apology that the historian is bound "not to what should be but to what is" (27). But in the Denny letter, the historian combines accurate reports of past events with idealized patterns of behavior: "[the Greek and Roman historians] were the wisest, and fullest of excellent examples, both of discipline & strategems" (539). This sentence, on which Sidney does not dwell, effectively collapses poetry into history, for the historian now provides models of good behavior as well as preserves the past. In a sense, poetry does not have to be mentioned because Sidney has so redefined history that it almost becomes poetry insofar as it teaches virtue, presents models, and gives helpful hints on military strategy. Significantly, this is exactly how Sidney characterizes Homer in the Apology (6, 62, 88). There are only two differences between Sidney's description of history in the Denny letter and his description of poetry in the Apology. First, the historian does not delight his reader; second, the historian does not create "forms such as never were in nature" (14). But given the practical bent of Sidney's letter, these are negligible qualities next to the historian's ability to combine factual detail with idealized portraiture.

The omission of poetry from the list of recommended subjects might be explained by assuming that Sidney, like a good orator, considered the nature of his audience before launching into his argument, and consequently tailored his list to fit Denny's specific needs. In other words, the Denny letter does not represent an ideal program of study (which presumably would include poetry), but a curtailed list meant to have no application to anyone other than Edward Denny. This view receives some support from Sidney's admission towards the beginning of his letter that "one thinge is fitte to be knowne by a scoller that will reed in the schools and an other by Ned Denny" (538), and that "thinge" happens to be soldiery, not poetry. Therefore, one might assume that Sidney recommends what Denny needs to know, not what Denny ought to know.

If, however, we choose to privilege the Apology as more representative of Sidney's "true" feelings towards literature, then we must confront the fact that Sidney himself discredits this explanation. He lavishes scorn upon the notion that soldiers do not need to read Homer, calling it "the ordinary doctrine of ignorance" (61). Active men "took their first motions of courage" from the poets, and as proof he gives the example of Alexander, "the phoenix of warlike princes": "This Alexander left his schoolmaster, living Aristotle, behind him, but took dead Homer with him. He put the philosopher Callistenes to death for his seeming philosophical, indeed mutinous, stubbomess; but the chief thing he ever was heard to wish for was that Homer had been alive" (61).

Even though Sidney states that "poetry is the companion of the camps" (61), when someone from the camps asks for aid in "directinge [his] studyes" (537), Sidney declines to mention poetry. Even further, he recommends philosophy to his soldier friend, which contradicts his assertion that "the quiddety of ens and prima materia will hardly agree with a corselet" and that Alexander "well found he received more bravery of mind by the pattern of Achilles than by hearing the definition of fortitude" (61).

Equally important, by omitting poetry Sidney contradicts the advice of such highly influential writer/pedagogues as Castiglione, Sir Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham. All three concerned themselves with investigating, in Elyot's words, "the order of learning apt for a gentleman" such as Denny, and all three insist upon the centrality of poetry.28 In addition, the letter of advice about education constituted an important subgenre of humanist discourse. Rabelais, Ariosto, and Montaigne wrote one, and in each case the author includes poetry among the disciplines essential to a gentleman's education.29

Consequently, poetry's absence in the Denny letter makes it a highly unconventional document, and we should not try to blunt its significance by either assuming that Denny need not have read Homer or Vergil or that Sidney merely adapted his advice to fit his audience. All Renaissance pedagogues would have disagreed with poetry's omission, and we need to attend to the disparity between the Denny letter and the Apology, not explain it away or diminish its significance.

Sidney does not make clear if his younger brother Robert asked for advice or, as older siblings often do, he spontaneously offered his advice on which disciplines best "teach profit."30 Whatever its origin, the resulting letter (dated 18 October 1580) generally follows the same outlines as the Denny letter, although with some significant modifications.31 Perhaps assuming that Robert already recognized the importance of the Bible, Sidney begins with history, recommending Jean Bodin "for the method of writing history" (219). Sidney gives the "chronologies of Melanchthon, Tarchagnota, Languet, and such others" as examples of "narrations of things done" (220), and he suggests that Robert read the ancient histories chronologically: "Xenophon to follow Thucydides, so doth Thucydides follow Herodotus, and Diodorus Siculus follow Xenophon; so generally do the Roman stories follow the Greek, and the particular stories of present monarchies follow the Roman" (220).

Sidney also strongly recommends that Robert attend to the "discoursers," whom he defines as anyone who writes "non simpliciter de facto, sed de qualitatibus et circumstantiis facti" (221)—not simply of the facts (i.e, the historians?), but of the qualities and circumstances of the fact. Sidney gives as examples the divine, "in telling his opinion and reasons in religion"; the lawyer, in "in showing the causes and benefits of laws"; and the "natural philosopher," "in setting down the causes of any strange thing."

As in the Denny letter, Sidney stresses that he particularly wants Robert to read the works of the "moral philosopher" in all his varieties: "either in the ethic part, when he sets forth virtues or vices, and the natures of passions, or in the politic, when he doth (as he often doth) meddle sententiously with matters of estate" (221).

The philosophers, not the poets, provide ideal models of actions (although Sidney does not specify, we may assume that he has in mind Aristotle and Cicero). Sidney's theoretical treatment of historians similarly follows the Denny letter, not the Apology. Sidney grants that the historian can reproduce the past accurately and, perhaps more importantly, it is the historian, not the poet, who provides ideal models for emulation, "examples of virtue and vice, with their good or evil successes": "the establishment or ruins of great estates, with the causes, the time, and the circumstances of the laws then written of, the enterings and endings of wars, and therein, the strategems against the enemy, and the discipline upon the soldier, and thus much as a very historiographer" (220).

Nonetheless, Sidney's treatment of history differs subtly from the other two texts. In the Denny letter, Sidney collapses poetry into history, and in the Apology, he rigorously insists upon the boundary separating poetry from history. The historian, tied "not to what should be but to what is" (27), cannot but include the good with the bad: "But as in Alexander or Scipio himself, show doings, some to be liked, some to be misliked" (32-33). Sidney grants that occasionally the historian "must tell events whereof he can yield no cause," but when this happens, he ceases to be an historian and becomes "poetical" (32, 33). In neither text does Sidney admit the possibility of any middle ground.

Sidney allows precisely this excluded option in the letter to Robert. He admits poetry's existence, which he does not do in the Denny letter, and he grants history much greater leeway in adapting the method of poetry (feigning) without actually becoming poetry than he does in the Apology:

Besides this, the historian makes himself a discourser for profit, and an orator, yea a poet, sometimes for ornament. An orator, in making excellent orations "e re nata," which are to be marked, but marked with the note of rhetorical remembrances: a poet, in painting forth the effects, the motions, the whisperings of the people, which though in disputation one might say were true, yet who will mark them well, shall find them taste of a poetical vein, and that kind are gallantly to be marked: for though perchance they were not so, yet it is enough they might be so. (220-21)

One could say that Sidney so valorizes those parts written in "the poetical vein" that they become the most valuable feature of history, thus coming very close to his statement in the Apology that "the best of the historian is subject to the poet" (34). Nonetheless, poetry is still subordinate to history, for if Sidney allows the historian to use "poetry" in order to teach virtue more effectively, he also says that the historian becomes an orator at other times. Although Sidney proposes an interdisciplinary approach in this passage, there is no doubt that history remains the preeminent science; poetry is a tool, not an equal partner. And so, Sidney does not recommend that Robert follow Alexander and read Homer. Using the example that Sidney gives in the Apology, this letter recommends that Robert spend his time reading Herodotus, not Xenophon, the fate of Zopyrus' nose notwithstanding. Even so, Sidney's theory of history in the Robert letter constitutes a compromise position between the unqualified denial of poetry in the Denny letter and the unqualified praise of poetry in the Apology.

The gulf between the Apology and the letters demonstrates that the Apology does not constitute an unambiguous, public statement of Sidney's poetics, but rather one statement among three, and which one we decide to privilege will reveal much about our preferences.32 If, however, we give each text equal weight, not assuming that the Apology represents Sidney's "true" feelings, then Sidney's unsureness of poetry's place in the public and the private spheres becomes clearer. The Apology, we should remember, was not written for public consumption, but for a coterie audience, which Sidney knew was largely, but not exclusively, sympathetic towards literature. As for the letters, such texts were by convention semi-public documents (indeed the Denny letter survived only because a student copied it out as an exercise). Privately, Sidney allowed himself, however problematically, to defend poetry. But for public consumption, Sidney either ignores poetry altogether or subordinates it to a more respectable discipline. To borrow Greenblatt's terms, it would appear that Sidney wrote his letters with an eye towards fashioning and maintaining his public self, and as we know from Moffett's adjustments to Sidney's literary career, a sympathy for poetry did not jibe with maintaining an image as the leader of international Protestantism.


25 Sir Edward Denny (1547-99) led a highly successful career as a soldier-courtier. All we know of his education is that Denny attended Merton College, Oxford, but his military career is more fully documented. He accompanied the Earl of Essex to Ireland in 1573, went on a number of highly profitable privateering ventures between 1577 and 1578, and toward the end of 1588 accompanied his cousins Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh on their unsucessful expedition to the New World. Denny and Sidney probably had known each other for some time before 1580, when Denny participated in a tournament officiated by Queen Elizabeth in which he and two other companions-at-arms, Philip, Earl of Arundel and Sir William Drurie, held the field against all challengers, including the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, and Sir Philip Sidney. That same year Denny, upon the recommendation of Sir Philip's father, Sir Henry Sidney, who called him "my deere friend," accompanied Lord Grey de Wilton (his secretary was Edmund Spenser) on his mission to Ireland, where he distinguished himself in a number of military engagements. After Ireland, Denny and Sidney's friendship continued to thrive. In a 1581 letter to Walsingham, Denny calls Sidney "the most worthy young man in the world." Elizabeth frequently employed Denny as a private messenger, and for his distinguished service over the years she knighted him in 1588. Denny died in 1599, and his epitaphs depict a man who exemplified the Elizabethan ideal of a courtier: "religious, wise, just, liberall, right valiant, most active, learning friende, prides foe, kindly, lovinge, mutch beloved, was honoured wth yt dignitie of knighthood by due deserte in ye field." A poem inscribed on a pillar next to his tomb sums up his life thus: "A courtier in the chamber, / A soldier in the fielde / Whose tongue could neuer flatter / Whose heart could neuer yield."

Did Denny follow Sidney's advice? Probably not, as he would have been too busy with the sordid details of fighting. Denny's sense of warfare was very much grounded in the traditions of chivalry, and he quickly became disillusioned with the Irish campaign. He complained that he had to fight in "boggs, gllimmes, and woods, as in my opinion it might better fit mastives than brave gentlemen that desier to win honour." The above information is summarized from H. L. L. Denny, "Biography of Sir Edward Denny," East Herts Archaeological Society: Transactions 2 (1902-1904): 248-49.

26 Sidney's letter to Denny remained unknown to twentieth-century critics until a Renaissance transcript of it turned up at a 1971 auction at Sotheby's (London). Later that year, English Literary Renaissance reprinted a portion of the letter in holograph (ELR 2 [1971]) with an introduction by John Buxton. In Young Philip Sidney: 1572-1577, James M. Osborn reprints the entire letter. All further references to the Denny letter are to Osborn's edition and cited parenthetically in the text. Although these letters have been known for some years, their relationship to Sidney's poetics has escaped scrutiny. Elizabeth Story Donno ("Old Mouse-Eaten Records: History in Sidney's Apology," in Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. Dennis Kay [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987], 149-50) and Dorothy Connell (Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker's Mind) mention the Denny letter, and Katherine Duncan-Jones gives an extended summary of it in Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), 171-74. No one, however, mentions the discrepancies between the letter and the Apology.

27 Sidney's choices are as follows: "of Refreining anger, of curiosity, of the Tranquility of the minde, of the Flatterer, & the friende, [and] of Morall vertew" (539).

28 Elyot calls Homer "a fountain" from which proceeds "all eloquence and learning." Because the Iliad presents the best examples of both political and military behavior, "there is no lesson for a young gentleman to be compared with Homer," and Elyot gives the Aeneid similar praise (The Book Named the Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmberg [New York: Everyman's Library, 1966], 30). Ascham also deems Homer "learned" and "divine." He has "so much learning in all kind of sciences as, by the judgement of Quintillian, he deserveth so high a praise that no man yet deserved to sit in the second degree beneath him" (Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster, ed. Lawrence V. Ryan [Ithaca: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1967], 54-55. Castiglione has Count Ludovico pepper his talk with brief encomia of poets ancient and contemporary, and his declaration that courtiers should also be poets is famous: "Let [the ideal courtier] be versed in the poets, as well as in the orators and historians, and let him be practiced also in writing verse and prose" (The Book of the Courtier, trans. Charles Singleton [New York: Anchor Books, 1959], 70). He should not only emulate Alexander's respect for Homer's art, but, like Unico Aretino, be prepared to recite a "spontaneous" sonnet so accomplished that his audience wonders if he composed it the night before.

29 As Claudio Guillen reminds us, "the letter may be regarded as one of the classical genres that are cultivated again or resurrected during the Renaissance" ("Notes toward the Study of the Renaissance Letter," Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation [Harvard English Studies 14 (1986)], 71). Rabelais, for example, "copies" Gargantua's letter to Pantagruel advising his son to become "a veritable abyss of learning," and Ariosto, in his sixth satire, a verse-epistle addressed to Pietro Bembo, details the humanist program of study he wants his son to follow. Montaigne casts the essay "Of the Education of Children" as a letter to the Comtesse de Gurson advising her upon the education of her progeny.

30 Robert Sidney's life more or less followed the same path as his brother's. The younger Sidney even wrote poetry, although his competent verse does not compare to the splendors of Astrophil and Stella. Like Denny, Robert Sidney was a soldier (he served in the same Dutch campaign that proved fatal to his brother) and, like his older brother, Robert served his queen as a relatively high-level diplomat. In the face of the Spanish threat, Elizabeth sent Robert to Scotland in 1588 in order to secure James's loyalty as well as to "back the queen out of some intemperate promises" committed by William Asheby," of awarding James' an English duchy with accompanying revenues, five thousand pounds, and a force of fifty gentelman, one hundred foot, and one hundred horse to be maintained at the queen's expense. Not only did Robert Sidney succeed at nullifying Asheby's promises while still ensuring James's loyalty, he did so while earning James's affections" (Millicent V. Hay, The Life of Robert Sidney [Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, Associated University Press, 1984], 61-69).

31 All references to Sidney's letter to Robert are from The Correspondence of Philip Sidney and Hubert Languet, ed. William A. Bradley (Boston: Merrymount Press, 1912), 219-25.

32 For proponents of this view, see Neil Rudenstine, Sidney's Poetic Development (Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1967), 51-52; A. C. Hamilton, Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 107-9; and Forrest G. Robinson, "Introduction," xxiii….


Sir Philip Sidney World Literature Analysis