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 the stanzaic pattern repeated, so in Sidney’s twenty-four songs he never repeats a pattern, and within particular poems, too, he displays a technical virtuosity comparable to that of his brother and sister.
Song 1, “O eyes, a lights devine,” for example, skillfully mixes lines of varied length, with a predominantly iambic beat. Like both Philip and Mary, he uses feminine rhyme very skillfully in the songs (as in Song 10, “You whoe fauor doe enioy”), and his technical skill is seen in such sophisticated mixtures as blending of rhyming anapests with the regular iambics in Song 4 (“My soule is purest fine/ doth not aspyre”). Like Mary, Sidney shows an excellent control of movement and balance within single lines, as, for example, in the final lines of Sonnet 21: “Or if on mee from my fayre heauen are seen/ Some scattred beames: Know sutch heate giues theyre light/ as frosty mornings Sun: as Moonshyne night.”
If Sidney shares something of Mary’s technical daring, the most important influence is nevertheless that of his brother. Sidney’s sequence is clearly modeled on Astrophel and Stella (1591): It mingles sonnets with longer, more emotionally diffuse songs, and like Philip’s sequence, Sidney’s contains an interesting transformation of biographical reference into a devious fiction. The whole sequence is characterized by an opaque melancholy, a mood of disturbance and brooding, which, while endemic to Petrarchan sonnets in general, nevertheless takes as its subject Sidney’s reading of his own political and personal career. While the collection is a typical Petrarchan miscellany, it is united even less than Astrophel and Stella by narrative or personas and is held together, more explicitly than in any other collection of late Elizabethan lyrics, by that most powerful of institutions and ideological forces, the Elizabethan court.
Writing from the Low Countries
Robert’s poetry was probably written during his long, frustrating tour of duty in the Low Countries, perhaps begun (like Mary’s) in the late 1580’s but (at least in the one extant copy) copied probably at some time between 1596 and 1598. Perhaps Sidney’s poetry was a reaction not only to his depressing exile from England but also to the melancholy duty of occupying his brother’s old post. Much of Sidney’s verse could be read as a moving expression of a frustrated politician’s world of escape, yearning for his wife and children and home at Penshurst.
Sonnet 7, “The hardy Captein vnusde to retyre,” speaks directly of his turning from the Low Countries “to the West” where “loue fast holds his hart” (Song 6). The sixth song of the collection is an especially revealing piece—as well as being the most impressive poetically. Like Ralegh’s...
(The entire section is 2821 words.)