Other literary forms
Although Sir Philip Sidney’s best-known work is Astrophel and Stella, his major work and the one to which he devoted most of his literary energy and much of his political frustration was Arcadia (originally titled The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia). This long, much-revised epic prose romance was written and revised between 1578 and 1586; it was first published in an unfinished version in 1590, then in 1593 in a revised and imperfect version, again in 1598, and repeatedly in many editions for more than a century. The equivalent in prose of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), it is an encyclopedic romance of love, politics, and adventure, incorporating many stories and discussions of philosophical, theological, erotic, and psychological issues. Almost as important is Sidney’s critical treatise, Defence of Poesie (1595; published in another edition as An Apologie for Poetry), written about 1580, and setting forth in a seductive, if never quite logically coherent argument, a celebration of the nature and power of poetry, along with some prescriptive (and perceptive) comments on the current malaise of English poetry, drama, and the literary scene generally. Other works Sidney wrote include The Lady of May (pr. 1578), a pastoral entertainment; the first forty-four poems in a translation of the Psalms, later revised and completed by his sister Mary; and a number of other miscellaneous poems, prose treatises, and translations, mainly designed to further the cause of the Protestant faction in Elizabeth’s court.
“Our English Petrarke Sir Philip Sidney . . . often comforteth him selfe in his sonnets of Stella, though dispairing to attaine his desire. . . .” Thus Sir John Harington in 1591, and generations of readers have similarly sighed and sympathized with Astrophel’s tragicomic enactment of “poore Petrarch’s long deceased woes.” In literary history, Astrophel and Stella marks a poetical revolution no less than William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798) or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); the poem is the product of a young, ambitious poet, acting on his impatience with the poetry he criticized in his manifesto, Defence of Poesie. “Poetry almost have we none,” he wrote, “but that lyrical kind of songs and sonets,” which “if I were a mistresse would never persuade mee they were in love.” Sir Philip Sidney has also had a special place in England’s broader cultural history. Part of his fascination has been the ways succeeding ages have appropriated him: as a lost leader of the golden Elizabethan age, Victorian gentleman, anguished Edwardian, committed existentialist, apolitical quietist, even a member of the Moral Majority. Like all great writers, Sidney and his works have been continually reinterpreted by successive ages, his poems and his life alike inscribed into different literary, political, and cultural discourses. As contemporary scholars have become more attuned to both the linguistic and ideological complexity of Renaissance literature generally and to the new possibilities of contemporary critical methods, Sidney’s writing has been seen, both in its seemingly replete presence and its symptomatic gaps and absences, as central to an understanding of Elizabethan poetry and culture.
None of Sidney’s poetry was published in his lifetime, and yet along with his other writings it circulated among a small coterie of family and court acquaintances during the 1580’s. Sidney’s vocations were those of courtier, statesman, Protestant aristocrat, and patriot before that of a poet, and his poetry encourages the piecing together of a more problematic Sidney than that afforded by conventional hagiography. Sidney’s writings often served, as A. C. Hamilton argues, “as a kind of outlet for political interests, compensating for the frustrations and failures” of his life: “problems that prove insurmountable in his career” were transposed and wrestled...
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