Other literary forms
Unlike his more famous brother Philip and his sister Mary, Sir Robert Sidney was not a prolific writer. Indeed, his career as a poet was probably confined to a few years, possibly as few as two. There are many letters by him in the Sir Robert Sidney papers, but he published no literary work in his lifetime. Likewise, his poetry remained in manuscript, probably at Penshurst, until the early nineteenth century, when it found its way into the Warwick Castle Library. The manuscript was first positively identified by P. J. Croft in 1973 and purchased by the British Library in 1974. It was subsequently printed in a modern-spelling version by Katherine Duncan-Jones, published as The Poems of Robert Sidney in 1984 by Oxford University Press.
The discovery of the manuscript of Sir Robert Sidney’s poetry in the 1970’s added a distinctive voice to the courtier poets of the late sixteenth century. In his manuscript’s ninety pages of nervous, often corrected handwriting are the works of a new Elizabethan poet of outstanding interest. Sidney does not quite possess Philip’s variety or intimate control of tone and mood within a poem (the emotions of his verse are expressed in broader sweeps) but his ear is highly sensitive, and his poems reverberate with the great commonplaces of Elizabethan life and literature—time, absence, grief, and deprivation. Like his contemporary Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert Sidney turned to poetry only occasionally, yet he found in it a commitment that went beyond emotional solace, Like Ralegh’s verse, Sidney’s reveals the ideological power of the Elizabethan court over those who struggled for articulation within its frantic center or (in Robert’s case) on its anxious margins.
Croft, P. J., ed. Autograph Poetry in the English Language: Facsimiles of Original Manuscripts from the Fourteenth to the Twentieth Century. 2 vols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. Includes Croft’s introduction, commentary, and transcripts.
_______. The Poems of Robert Sidney. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This volume is edited from the poet’s autograph notebook, found by Croft in 1973. It is the largest single collection of original Tudor poetry in existence. Includes an introduction and commentary by Croft.
Hay, Millicent V. The Life of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester (1563-1626). London: Associated University Presses, 1984. Hay’s biography of the poet includes genealogical tables, a bibliography, index, and an interesting account of Sidney’s life as poet and politician.
Jonson, Ben. “To Penhurst.” In The Complete Poems, by Ben Jonson. Edited by George Parfitt. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. In this tribute, Jonson acknowledges Sidney’s contribution as poet and patron of the arts through an examination of Penshurst Place. This form of tribute based on a physical place went on to become a popular literary form.
Kelliher, W. Hilton, and Katherine Duncan-Jones. “A Manuscript of Poems by Robert Sidney: Some...
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