Sir Robert Sidney Analysis
The retrieval of the manuscript poems written by Sir Robert Sidney was one of the most important Renaissance discoveries of the past one hundred years. The Sidney manuscript is the only extant substantial body of verse by an Elizabethan poet in his own handwriting and incorporating the poet’s own revisions. In addition to their intrinsic interest, these poems dramatically change the present view of the literary activities of the Sidney circle—that unique, closely connected family group inspired by the genius and person of Sir Philip Sidney, Robert’s brother.
Although references to the literary interests of all the Sidneys, including Robert, are found in many dedications, letters, and prefaces of the period, there are few references to him as a poet. George Chapman wrote of him in 1609 as “the most Learned and Noble Concluder of the Warres Art, and the Muses.” There is a tradition that he wrote the lyrics for his godson Robert Dowland’s Musicall Banquet, and he may have written verses in honor of his daughter’s marriage. Certainly, like the rest of his family, Sidney was widely praised as a generous patron of literature. It is significant that the distinctive note of the encouragement of poets by the other members of the Sidney family was that they were poets themselves. “Gentle Sir Philip Sidney,” wrote Thomas Nashe, “thou knewest what belonged to a schollar, thou knewest what paines, what toyle, what travel, conduct to perfection.”
Like that of his sister Mary, Sidney’s poetic career may have started seriously only after his brother’s death. It is clear that she did not begin to write seriously until after 1586, when she took upon herself the vocation to continue his work in forwarding the Elizabethan poetic Renaissance. The bulk of her work, an impressive body of poetry and prose, grows directly out of Philip’s inspiration: She edited his manuscripts, completed his versifying of the psalms, and wrote or translated a number of works directly influenced by his critical theories or dedicated to his memory. It may be that Robert also wrote his verse as a similar, although less public, attempt to continue his brother’s poetic intentions. He may have decided that Mary, more permanently settled at Wilton in the 1580’s with the increasing comings and goings of Fulke Greville, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, and other poets, was better placed to forward the literary revolution of the Sidneys. It was to her that he sent the one extant copy of his manuscript, possibly during one of his much-desired but infrequent visits to England.
Sonnets and songs
The obvious comparisons are, then, between Sidney’s poetry and that written by Philip and Mary. Like his brother’s, Sidney’s poems are in the form of a Petrarchan miscellany of sonnets and songs, although they show a greater variety of metrical and stanzaic patterns than the normal sonnet sequence of the 1580’s and 1590’s, a characteristic he may have derived from Mary, whose psalms are the most impressive formal experimentation in English verse before Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the countess’s 165 psalms, there are 164 distinct stanzaic and metrical patterns, some of them being remarkably complex and subtle.
Robert’s are technically less ambitious, although they certainly reflect a similar interest in working with complex patterns of verse—as evidenced by the three unusual thirteen-line stanzas of “Upon a wretch that wastes away/ Consumed with wants.” Here the complex rhyme scheme (aab cccb ddeeb) and the varying line length (886886-33666 syllables) are reminiscent of the countess’s experiments, as indeed are many of Sidney’s pastorals and songs. None of the patterns exactly matches those of Mary and the diction is naturally closer to the typical love poetry of the era (such as in England’s Helicon , 1600) than to her psalms, but they arise from the same fascination with formal experimentation: Just as in Mary’s psalms only once is...
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