Article abstract: Known during his lifetime as the perfect example of a Renaissance courtier because of his learning, nobility, and chivalry, Sidney was also a poet of the first rank whose sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella is a classic of English literature.
From his birth, Philip Sidney was associated with the court of England. His godfather was Philip II of Spain, husband of Queen Mary, and his godmother (his grandmother) was the Duchess of Northumberland. Philip’s father, Sir Henry Sidney, was active in government affairs in Wales and Ireland. Sidney’s early years were spent at Penshurst, the family estate. In 1564, he began attending Shrewsbury School, where he met the future writer Fulke Greville, who would later compose the first biography of Sidney.
In 1568, Sidney entered Christ Church, Oxford, where he impressed his teachers and fellows with his intelligence and character. His circle of friends grew to include such notables as Richard Carew, who would become known as a poet, and Richard Hakluyt, who would win fame as an explorer and writer.
His stay at Oxford was cut short in 1571 when he left the university because of the plague; Sidney never received a degree. In 1572, he began a two-year tour of the Continent, ostensibly to improve his knowledge of foreign languages, but also to serve in a quasi-diplomatic function for Elizabeth I. It was during this visit that Sidney met a number of Protestant leaders in Europe and became a firm and vocal champion of their cause. This belief was strengthened during his stay in France by the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre of Protestants on August 23, 1572.
During his extensive travels, Sidney met and befriended Hubert Languet, who accompanied Sidney to Vienna and the court of Maximilian II, and later to Poland. Languet had a great influence on Sidney and further confirmed for the young Englishman the truth of the Protestant cause. Sidney also visited Hungary, spent time in Venice studying astronomy, music, and Italian literature, and, upon his return to Vienna, learned horsemanship under John Peter Pugliano, the foremost equestrian of the age. Later, in his Defence of Poesie (1580), published in another edition as Apologie for Poetry, Sidney gave a vivid description of these lessons.
In June, 1575, Sidney returned to England. His education was now complete, and he was ready to embark on his service to England and the court of Elizabeth. He was already known for his intelligence and his serious nature, and his contemporaries universally acknowledged him as a paragon of virtues. In appearance, he was quite handsome, with light hair, a fair complexion, and fine features. The numerous portraits which survive testify to his refined but not overly elegant presence.
As a member of the court, Sidney met Walter Devereaux, first Earl of Essex, and his daughter, Penelope, who would later become the “Stella” of Sidney’s sonnet sequence. Although there was discussion of marriage, the death of Essex in 1576 and Sidney’s attention to political matters at court allowed the desultory courtship to lapse. At the time, Sidney composed verses inspired more by literary models than Penelope herself; his earlier sonnets are clearly patterned after those of the Earl of Surrey to his love, Geraldine. It was only after 1581, when Penelope had married Lord Rich, that Sidney seemed to have been moved by real passion toward her. By then, he could only vent his feelings in the sonnets of Astrophel and Stella (1591).
In the meantime, however, Sidney was occupied with political and diplomatic affairs at court. In 1577, he was dispatched with messages for the newly crowned Elector Palatine and to the Emperor Rudolf II, who had also recently succeeded to the throne. While in Prague, Sidney boldly lectured the new emperor on the need to combat the threat of Spanish domination of Europe. While...
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