Ye Goatherd Gods

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Ye Goatherd Gods




Published posthumously in 1593, having been written sometime between 1577 and 1580, Sir Philip Sidney's poem "Ye Goatherd Gods" was published as part of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Generally shortened to Arcadia, this work is a collection of poems that collectively relate a pastoral romance; Sidney wrote the poems as a way to entertain his sister while he was staying with her. A pastoral work is one that concerns shepherds and their lives and is generally emotional and centered on love themes. Sidney actually wrote two versions of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. The first one (dubbed The Old Arcadia) was later revised, to be referred to as The New Arcadia.

"Ye Goatherd Gods" relates the woes of two shepherds who love the same woman. She has left them both, however, and the two shepherds are dejected and heartbroken. They cry out to the gods, to nature, and to the heavens in their angst, and everything they see is altered because of their sorrows. The poem is hyperbolic and highly emotional, with the two speakers engaged in a traditional pastoral singing match.

One of the features of "Ye Goatherd Gods" that makes it such a unique pastoral is that it is written in the form of a double sestina. This is a very specific form of poetry, one that requires discipline and command of language. Sidney so skillfully employs this form that the reader only notices it upon giving the poem careful examination.


Sir Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst, Kent, England, on November 30, 1554, to Lady Mary and Sir Henry Sidney, the latter a lord deputy of Ireland and lord president of the Marches of Wales. Sir Henry Sidney's royal appointment in Wales kept him away from home for much of the young Sidney's childhood. Sidney's mother later became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. She was so closely associated with the queen's care that she contracted smallpox while attending to the queen during her recovery from the illness in 1562. Unfortunately, the disease disfigured Lady Mary's face to the extent that she could no longer appear in court.

Sidney began school at Shrewsbury School in October 1564, along with a boy named Fulke Greville, who would grow to be a close, lifelong friend of Sidney's. In fact, Greville pursued writing and eventually became Sidney's biographer. At Shrewsbury, Sidney learned languages (including Latin), religion, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, and other subjects typical of a classical education. Sidney attended Oxford but did not graduate. He traveled more widely than was common for a young man in his time, seeing a great deal of Europe and making well-connected friends along the way. He was in Paris for the horror of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre and the Protestant-Catholic rioting and violence that followed throughout France. Sidney himself was a staunch Protestant, as his friend and mentor Hubert Languet strongly guided him in that direction in his youth.

Upon returning to England, Sidney settled into life as an important courtier, going on diplomatic visits and spurring on young authors he found promising. Among these was Edmund Spenser. Unfortunately, Sidney was temporarily relieved of his position in the court because of his vocal criticism of the queen's potential engagement to a French family. He spent his time away from court with his sister and wrote a lengthy pastoral romantic poetry series called The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, which includes "Ye Goatherd Gods." Sidney's ability to characterize different types of women in this work and others continues to be a point of acclaim among literary scholars.

After learning that certain Puritan scholars were then writing against poetry, Sidney wrote his The Defence of Poesy. Around 1576, Sidney began the first sonnet cycle, and one of the greatest, in Elizabethan literature. It is called Astrophil and Stella, and it reflects the agony and ecstasy of a man who loves a woman who is minimally responsive to his passion for her. Scholars agree that these poems came from Sidney's lengthy relationship with Penelope Devereaux. While the two eventually married other people, the poetry reveals much about Sidney's feelings for her.

In 1585, Sidney responded to the call for young soldiers to fight for Protestantism in the Low Countries against Spain. He was seriously injured on September 13, 1586, and died at Anhelm, in the Netherlands, twenty-six days later, at the age of thirty-two. All of his poetry was published posthumously to great acclaim.


Stanza 1

The first stanza of "Ye Goatherd Gods" is spoken by Strephon. He and Klaius are shepherds in Sidney's larger work Arcadia, in which this poem originally appeared. In this stanza, Strephon appeals to the gods, nymphs, and satyrs, all of whom are common figures in pastoral poetry. These figures and the landscape—valleys, grass, and woods—establish the setting. Strephon then advises the gods, nymphs, and satyrs to grant the favor of listening to his complaining music. He says that his woes come in the morning and stay with him through the evening.

Stanza 2

In the second stanza, Klaius appeals to the heavens in his woe. He addresses first Mercury (which can be seen in the evening), then Diana the huntress (which is the moon), and finally the morning star (or Venus). As in the first stanza, this stanza marks out time by the passing of the day. Klaius also uses Strephon's approach of including landscape in his stanza, likewise emphasizing the outdoor and pastoral. Klaius's fifth line echoes Strephon's fourth line exactly; in both, the shepherds ask the ones they address to lend their ears to the music of complaint. In the last line, Klaius admits that his woeful song makes Echo grow weary in the forests.

Stanza 3

In the third stanza, Strephon recalls his carefree days in the forests enjoying shade and game playing. He was known and loved for his music but now is banished because of his despair. Instead of playing enjoyable music, he is now like a screech owl to himself. The days of contentment and delight in music are gone, destroyed by his sorrows.

Stanza 4

Klaius, in the fourth stanza, also remembers back to a simpler time of hunting in the forest and personifying music of the valleys. Now that his sadness has overtaken him, the whole day is so dark and absent of light that he feels that all day is evening time. His perception of the world is that it is now overwhelming and impossible to conquer. He likens a molehill to a mountain and claims that his crying has replaced music in filling the vales.

Stanza 5

In the fifth stanza, Strephon describes his music as a swan's song; the swan supposedly only sang before it died. He says that only his wails greet the morning, and they are strong enough to climb mountains. His thoughts are no longer like the forests he once loved but are now like barren deserts. It has also been a long time, he says, since he experienced joy or a respected place in society.

Stanza 6

Klaius says in the sixth stanza that it has been a long time since the other people in the valley—who are happy—asked him to stop disrupting their lives with his music. He has grown accustomed to hating both the evening and the morning, as well as to having his thoughts pursue him like wild animals. He wonders if he might not be better underneath a mountain, presumably meaning dead and buried.

Stanza 7

In the seventh stanza, Strephon relates his changed perceptions of the world since his sorrow overtook him. He now sees majestic mountains as gloomy valleys. Strephon anthropomorphizes nature by projecting onto it his own emotions, past and present. What he once saw in the mountains was what he saw in himself, and he now sees them as flattened and dejected, just as he sees himself. In the forest, he hears nightingales and owls, but their music is intermingled. Where he once found solace in the morning, he now feels only the serene that comes in the evening; serene here refers not to peacefulness but to damp evening air that was believed to make people sick.

Stanza 8

In the eighth stanza, Klaius resumes Strephon's discussion of the evening air, finding filth in it. He adds that at sunrise, he detects a foul odor; this is the scent of the flowers, but his perception of the world has changed as dramatically as Strephon's has. Instead of finding beauty in the sight and scent of the flowers, he finds ugliness and offense. His perception is so altered that he describes the lovely music of the morning as being like the horrific cries of men being killed in the forest.

Stanza 9

Strephon says in the ninth stanza that he would like to set fire to the forests and bid the sun farewell every night. He sends curses to those who find music. He envies the mountains and hates the valleys. His hatred extends to every part of every day—the night, the evening, the day, and the morning.

Stanza 10

In the tenth stanza, Klaius also delivers a curse, but his is for himself. He describes himself as lower than the lowest valley. He has no desire ever to see another evening, and he proclaims his own self-loathing. He even covers his ears to block the sound of music.

Stanza 11

At last, in the eleventh stanza, Strephon talks directly about the woman he and Klaius love. Reading more of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, the reader would know that the object of the shepherds' love is Urania. Urania was one of the Greek muses, and her area of influence was astronomy and astrology. During the Renaissance, Urania was adopted as the muse of Christian poets.

Strephon says that the woman creates music, and it is perfect. Her beauty outshines the morning, and her grandeur surpasses the mountains. The landscape is depicted as having beauty and stateliness, but it is no match for the woman the shepherds' love. For all their complaining about the landscape, it must actually be beautiful to them for them to compare their love to it. Strephon says that when she left, he was cast down into utter darkness.

Stanza 12

Klaius begins the twelfth stanza with the same two words that Strephon used to begin the eleventh stanza. This parallel not only keeps the reader's attention on the new subject of the woman but also indicates that Klaius is continuing Strephon's mode of expression. Klaius says that compared to the woman they love, the Alps are nothing but valleys. He adds that her slightest utterance brings music into existence, and her actions dictate the movements of the heavens and the lushness of the pastures. In their infatuation, the shepherds embrace hyperbole in describing Urania.

Stanza 13

The concluding stanza, unlike the preceding six-line stanzas, is a tristich. A tristich is a stanza with three lines that do not necessarily rhyme (unlike a tercet, which is a three-lined rhyming stanza). In the tristich, Strephon and Klaius speak together. They reiterate that the nature that surrounds them will serve as witnesses to their sorrow. They say that their music actually makes nature wretched. They conclude with the declaration that the same plaintive song is what they sing in the morning and in the evening.


Longing in Love

Both shepherds are so overtaken by their love for the absent Urania that each has made his heartbreak his identity and the lens through which he sees the world. Their words are all driven by how much they miss her and long to be near her again. To Strephon and Klaius, the world is impacted by their sorrow; nature is redefined by it; their existence is made miserable because of it; and the world cannot even function without Urania's presence. Even time is reduced to a system by which the two mournful shepherds can only mark the passing of their seemingly endless suffering. Although their expression is hyperbolized, most readers who have been in love—or infatuated, more accurately—can relate to the way the shepherds feel about Urania.

Longing in love is the predominant theme of "Ye Goatherd Gods," to the exclusion of any other theme of emotional experience. In fact, other themes of the work emerge from this central theme. The shepherds are characterized as one-dimensional, and their reliance on hyperbole reinforces this. The reader learns nothing of the backgrounds, families, or life experiences of the shepherds. The reader must wonder if Strephon and Klaius are rivals, but they say nothing of their relationship with one another. In the context of this poem alone, their entire relationship seems to be based on their mutual longing and understanding of the other's deep suffering in longing for Urania.

Indeed, a unique aspect of the two shepherds' declarations of love for the same woman is that they do not appear to be rivals with one another, or even to be competing to see which one loves her more. Typically, a man passionately in love with the same woman as another man would regard the other man as an enemy; he would most likely seek to hurt, kill, or at least tarnish the reputation of the other man, to make it easier for him to win the love of the woman. Another potential mode of combat between two such rivals is a competition to see which one loves her—and presumably deserves her—more. In such a case, each utterance would be intended to outdo the other man's statements. But here, the two shepherds are united in their shared feelings for Urania. They seem to be so focused on her and on their personal pain that they do not notice that they should perhaps be in competition. They may realize that she is gone forever, in which case the notion of rivalry is meaningless.

Nature as a Reflection of Human Emotion

A theme secondary to longing in love is that of nature as an external reflection of internal emotional experience. Everywhere the shepherds look, they see the world through the eyes of their own suffering. As a result, they see the mountains as

savage and majestic, the valleys as woeful and overtrodden, and the forests as dark and secretive. Further, everything in nature seems to have changed its qualities completely. Mountains have become flat, while molehills have become mountainous; the morning now brings danger and illness instead of hope and light; flowers have a stench instead of a pleasant aroma; and deserts instead of forests represent Strephon's thoughts. All of these perceptions are the shepherds' projections of their own emotional states onto the world around them. Because their inner worlds have become dark and hopeless, that is how they now perceive the world.


  • The poet Edmund Spenser was encouraged and patronized by Sidney. Read his masterpiece Shepheards Calendar and write an essay discussing similarities and differences between Spenser's and Sidney's works.
  • The sestina is one of the most difficult forms of poetry to write. It consists of six six-lined stanzas followed by a tristich. The sestina does not rhyme but follows a specific pattern using the end words from each line. Write an abbreviated sestina following the pattern of the first three stanzas of Sidney's "Ye Goatherd Gods," and write a tristich to end your poem. You may write on any topic you choose.
  • Read sonnets from Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, looking for at least one that mirrors the emotional intensity of "Ye Goatherd Gods." What general statements can you make about the nature of love based on these very different works about the same topic by the same poet? Write an essay on the topic.
  • Research Elizabethan England, delving into the social, political, and cultural climate, especially in relation to literature and poetry. Write a report on your findings.

Another instance in which the external world reflects the emotional experiences of Strephon and Klaius occurs toward the end of the poem, when Klaius explains to the reader that the world cannot function properly without Urania. Her words bring music to life and cause the sun to rise and bring morning to the day. The truth, of course, is that she brings a sense of music and joy to his world, and he seeks hope for the future in her.


Double Sestina

"Ye Goatherd Gods" is unique in that it is written as a double sestina. The sestina is among the most challenging forms of poetry, and Sidney wrote here a double sestina. Upon first reading, the poem seems like a simple poetic dialogue between two lovelorn shepherds. However, upon closer inspection, the masterful form reveals the skill of the poet. A sestina is a poem with six six-lined stanzas, followed by a concluding tristich (a stanza of three lines, different from a tercet because a tercet rhymes).

The other major structural feature of the sestina is its end-word patterns. The sestina does not rhyme, but the same six words are used to end the lines in all of the six-lined stanzas. These follow a particular pattern. The first stanza determines the pattern, so it can be represented as abcdef. In the next stanza, the end words from the previous stanza are used at the ends of the new lines in the following order: from the last line, from the first line, from the fifth line, from the second line, from the fourth line, and finally from the third line. Thus, the second stanza follows the pattern faebdc. Each stanza then follows this same formula to derive its end-word pattern. The third stanza follows the pattern cfdabe, and so on. The tristich follows the end-word pattern of the last three lines of the previous stanza but also includes within its three lines the other three end words. In a typical sestina, the tristich pattern is eca, with the words represented by bdf also included in the lines.

What makes "Ye Goatherd Gods" unique is that it is a double sestina, meaning that instead of six stanzas, there are twelve. Sidney takes the poem through the entire end-word pattern twice. In Sidney's tristich, the pattern is different: he uses the first three lines (instead of the last three) from the stanza before it, which are bdf ("valleys," "music," and "evening"). Readers can easily find the eca words ("morning," "forests," and "mountains") worked into the lines.


Sidney's poem is a pastoral because it features two shepherds in a rustic, outdoor setting. The speakers say nothing of the indoors, and although they never speak about their flocks or their work (beyond subtle references to grass and valleys), they do call on the goatherd gods, and the context of the larger work lets the reader know that they are shepherds. In traditional Greek pastorals, eclogues were a common approach to writing the work. An eclogue is a dialogue or singing match between two shepherds; Virgil famously wrote in this form. Here, Sidney draws on the rich tradition of the Greek pastoral to give his speakers a setting and a way of interacting, although they never address one another. They are speaking in turns about the same topic, their heartache over the absence of Urania. The fact that Urania is the object of their love further reinforces the pastoral quality of the poem because she was a Greek muse. Similarly, the first stanza's calling to nymphs and satyrs helps identify the Greek roots of the form right away. Pastorals are traditionally emotional and often about lost or unrequited love, as is the case in "Ye Goatherd Gods."


Elizabethan England

Sidney was born in 1554 and died in 1586, and Queen Elizabeth was in power from 1558 to 1603. This means that for all but the first four years of Sidney's life, Elizabeth was ruling over England. In that Sidney was a titled man, a traveler, a courtier, a poet and patron, and then a soldier, the queen had considerable influence in his life. Elizabeth's reign continued the Tudor monarchy in England, and she was beloved at home and respected abroad. She was known for being cunning, headstrong, and politically astute, and under her leadership, England grew more secure financially and militarily. The Elizabethan years were a time of growing nationalism, and though Elizabeth never married and thus provided no heir to her throne, she left England strong and secure.

Despite the strength of Elizabeth's reign, religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics plagued England and Europe. Elizabeth, a Protestant, played a part in bringing those tensions to a head when she established the Anglican Church and took part in anti-Catholic persecution. The Vatican and English Catholics wanted to see Mary Stuart, a Catholic, ascend the throne. As a staunch Protestant, Sidney was safe from persecution as long as Elizabeth remained in power.

Elizabeth was in fact a great patroness of the arts, encouraging such luminaries as Edmund Spenser, William Byrd, and William Shakespeare. She administered much of her support of the arts through her officers and favorites. Courtiers who were successful in garnering patronage could then act as patrons for other artists and writers. Besides Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Christopher Hatton were successful courtiers who enjoyed power and wealth as a result of their skill in the court. Even Sidney's sister, the Countess of Pembroke, enjoyed success as a patron in Elizabeth's England.


  • 1593: Religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants remain extreme throughout England and Europe. In England, Queen Elizabeth (a Protestant) is in power, although there is a movement to try to install her cousin Mary Stuart (a Catholic) in her place. Queen Elizabeth establishes the Anglican Church, putting the full power of the throne behind Protestantism.

    Today: Catholics and Protestants coexist peacefully the world over. The notable exception to this is in Northern Ireland, where tensions began in the seventeenth century. Although a 1921 treaty held violence at bay for a while, rioting resumed in the 1960s, continuing into the 1990s. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Britain considered returning home rule to Northern Ireland because of the violence.

  • 1593: Writers rely on rich patrons to support them and their art. For example, a poet might be paid a sum to write a poem for a formal occasion of the state. In this era, writing is done for entertainment, praise, and social standing.

    Today: Thousands of writers make a living with their craft thanks to numerous publishers and high literacy rates. In the twenty-first century, outlets such as blogs and other Internet forums allow people to write for a public without having to work with a publisher. Successful bloggers are even able to sell ad space to generate income.

  • 1593: Communities rely heavily on local farms and animal husbandry because goods from distant locations are not readily available. Because of this, occupations such as farming and shepherding are relatively common. There is, however, a sizeable social gap between laborers and the elite, despite the fact that pastorals romanticize farmworkers and the lifestyle of the shepherd.

    Today: Because of the efficiency and convenience of trade across long distances, as well as advancements in food preservation, the traditional shepherding lifestyle is practically nonexistent outside of developing nations.

Pastoral Poetry

The first pastoral is believed to have been written in the third century b.c.e. by Theocritus. In Greece, the pastoral developed as a form from that time, taking on specific characteristics. Pastoral works were either dialogues or singing matches between two shepherds, often called eclogues. This is the style that was adopted by Sidney for "Ye Goatherd Gods." Greek pastorals were also sometimes written as lovesick monologues or elegies for lost loved ones. In England, the heyday of pastorals was between 1550 and 1750, when poets sometimes likened acquaintances to romanticized shepherds and shepherdesses. Some of the most famous pastorals are Edmund Spenser's Shepheards Calendar, John Milton's "Lycidas," and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonis." The pastoral has been adapted to other genres, such as drama, and the term has been expanded to include anything with a rustic setting.


Scholars have written much about Sidney's work in general, some about Arcadia, and only a little about "Ye Goatherd Gods." However, scholars have made much of Sidney's adherence to the traditional pastoral form and especially to his accomplishment in writing a double sestina. Commenting on Arcadia, Walter R. Davis, in the Reference Guide to English Literature, writes that Sidney's characters are often philosophical, wondering about the degree of control people have over their world and events. Davis remarks, "Sidney's sophisticated narrative persona views these actions with objectivity and, frequently, with wry comedy." Calling special attention to "Ye Goatherd Gods," Davis refers to it as "the great double sestina," a "really accomplished" poem. Commenting on the historical context of the work, David Loades, writing in the English Historical Review, reminds readers that the allegorical slant of Arcadia and other pastoral epics has been understood and appreciated by readers and critics for many years. In the case of Arcadia, Sidney communicates concern about England, the weaknesses of Queen Elizabeth (though he also knew her strengths), and his traditional view of women. He adds, "Both Arcadias represent the intellectual and moral anguish of men who believed that their ship was being steered towards the icebergs by a pilot whom they would much rather have trusted and loved."

In an extended analysis of Sidney's characterization of the two shepherds, Gary L. Litt, writing in Studies in the Literary Imagination, begins his exploration with the bold statement that "Ye Goatherd Gods" is "a masterful demonstration of formal and verbal artifice." As have so many scholars and students of poetry, Litt acknowledges the achievement of the poem's form, genre, tone, and rhetoric:

Sidney not only masters an unnatural and difficult form, but also presents a mini-drama in which there is subtle differentiation of Klaius and Strephon, a definite pattern of emotional and psychological movement, and an attempt to examine several Renaissance rhetorical and philosophical stances through the characters, styles, and thoughts of the shepherds.

In an 1886 issue of Littell's Living Age, the famous critic Edmund Gosse expresses being divided on Sidney's work. He does write glowingly about Arcadia, describing it as "deserving more patient attention than has yet been given to it." He also writes, "That famous pastoral is, in a certain sense, one of the most interesting books that ever were published; in the eyes of the literary historian it is a belvidere from which he looks up and down the whole range of English literature."

Assessing Sidney's writing as a whole, however, Gosse finds it somewhat overvalued. He explains, "The positive merit of the bulk of his writings is almost pathetically inadequate to any excess of praise." So, in Gosse's opinion, Arcadia is exceptionally strong amid Sidney's other work. Another criticism is offered by William Ernest Henley, who does not find Arcadia to be impressive at all. In Views and Reviews: Essays in Appreciation, he remarks, "In that ‘cold pastoral’ he is trying to give breath and substance to as thin and frigid a fashion as has ever afflicted literature."


Jennifer Bussey

Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explores Sir Philip Sidney's use of sense imagery to heighten emotion in "Ye Goatherd Gods."

Sir Philip Sidney's "Ye Goatherd Gods" is a pastoral poem written impressively as a double sestina. Sidney wrote the poem as part of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (a long work that includes prose, poetry, and other forms, often shortened to Arcadia), all for the entertainment of his younger sister, with whom he was staying at the time. "Ye Goatherd Gods" is, from a content point of view, fairly straightforward. Two shepherds, Strephon and Klaius, are suffering from heartbreak in being absent from Urania, whom they both love desperately. From a characterization and emotional standpoint, the poem does not stray far from this basic theme of longing.

There are other elements of the poem, however, by which Sidney adds complexity. The form of the poem, to be sure, is very sophisticated and complicated, yet the poem itself does not suffer from the constraints of the form. There are subtle differences in the characterizations of the two shepherds, and a very careful reader will appreciate Sidney's added complexity here, too. Furthermore, within the vivid, highly emotional imagery used by the shepherds to describe their woe, Sidney adds a dimension to their expression in the way he uses sense imagery. As one-dimensional as Strephon and Klaius themselves may be emotionally, the sense imagery they invoke is multidimensional. Through sound, sight, smell, and touch, Sidney brings his rustic setting to life, allowing the reader to imagine how that setting looks and feels to the shepherds.

The first sense Sidney calls into play is hearing. In the first stanza, Strephon pleads with the gods, nymphs, and satyrs to lend him their ears for his plaintive song of woe. Even before that, he makes subtle reference to sound when he characterizes the forests as silent. This plea prepares the reader for what will be numerous references to sound, and specifically to music, throughout the poem. This poem is an eclogue, a form of pastoral featuring two shepherds in dialogue or in a singing match. Strephon's mention of a song followed by the shift to a second speaker reinforces the poem's participation in the rich pastoral tradition that inspired Sidney here.

Strephon is forthright about the fact that his music is of a complaining nature, which also sets the tone for the reader. Armed with this information, the reader knows the emotional situation of the shepherd and can expect the poem to be emotional and somber. Strephon's plea is immediately followed by Klaius's plea to the heavens and the gods, and he likewise begs them to hear his song of complaint.

The landscape in "Ye Goatherd Gods" is frequently described in terms of sound. While Strephon alluded to the silence of the forest, Klaius describes the valley as loud, filled with the sound of his woeful voice. To further emphasize the auditory aspect of the setting, Klaius comments that Echo has grown weary from his cries. His cries, according to the fourth stanza, have replaced music; sounds that delight the ear are now gone, and mournful music and cries are there instead. Even more horrific, Klaius later imagines that instead of music coming from the forest, he hears the frightening sounds of men being murdered. In the tristich at the end of the poem, both shepherds speak in unison, saying that their music has made their surroundings wretched. Their perception of the world is so colored by their own intense emotions that they imagine they have the power, through their sounds, to corrupt nature and turn it into something awful and ugly. These descriptive features of the landscape give the unfeeling natural world a strong emotional quality.

Sidney uses birds to bring another layer of sound imagery to the poem. Strephon regards himself as his own screech owl in the morning, an image that contrasts with the expected sounds of pleasant chirping in the morning. Even hearing a nearby rooster would be more pleasant than being one's own screeching owl. In the seventh stanza, the nightingale, too, learns how to make the owl's sounds instead of continuing to make its own pleasant music. In the fifth stanza, Strephon refers to his swan song, the song believed to foretell a swan's death—the last utterance of a beautiful bird knowing it is dying. This, Strephon says, is what he hears every morning. Over and over in the poem, the shepherds twist expectations of music. In the tenth stanza, Strephon must cover his ears so that the music will not make him go insane. Instead of being cheerful, festive, or peaceful, music has become sorrowful and unwelcome. Klaius, in turn, admits in the sixth stanza that his music irritates other people and drives them away from him. Whether at work or at leisure, others do not want his music to interfere with their lives.

Of course, there is one music in the poem that is sweet, delightful, and perfect, and that is the music from Urania. Klaius says that her words bring music into existence.

Another prominent sense used by Sidney to convey the shepherds' internal reality is sight. All around them, the shepherds see a landscape that is overwhelming or dulled by their broken hearts. Despite having valleys, mountains, and forests around them, they see no beauty but in their memories of Urania. The mountains are intimidating and menacing, described as being savage and monstrous. In the middle of the poem, on the other hand, Strephon declares that he sees the mountains as having been reduced to low valleys. In the next stanza, Klaius describes seeing the dank air of the morning that threatens illness. Two stanzas later, he proclaims that he no longer desires to see the evening again. He would be just as happy not to see the nature that surrounds him because his perception is so changed by his sorrow. He sees nothing but danger and defeat.

The senses of smell and touch are present in the poem but with only one mention each. In the eighth stanza, Klaius notices the sun rising over the mountains, but rather than take in the beautiful and inspiring experience, he senses an offensive smell—that of the flowers on the mountain, opening to the morning sun. To anyone else, this would be a pleasing scent that would only enhance the whole experience. To Klaius, however, the scent is repulsive because everything that was once beautiful is tainted and ruined by the torment of his soul. The sense of touch is important at the end of the seventh stanza, when Strephon describes feeling the deadly serene, which is moist air believed to make people sick. He admits that he once found the evening pleasant and comforting, but now he feels this air on his skin and it threatens instead of comforts.


  • Writing after Sidney: The Literary Response to Sir Philip Sidney, 1586-1640 (2006), by Gavin Alexander, relates the influence Sidney had after his death and the posthumous publication of his work. Alexander gives special attention to the writings of those closest to Sidney, such as his sister and a lifelong friend.
  • Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works (2002) contains Old Arcadia, New Arcadia, The Defence of Poesy, Astrophil and Stella, and other poetry, prose, and letters by Sidney, as well as eulogies written about Sidney after his death at a young age.
  • The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society (2000), by A. L. Rowse, presents the lives of people in Elizabethan England from the elite to the commoners, with details about the routines, practices, and beliefs that permeated their everyday lives.
  • Philip Sidney: A Double Life (2001), by Alan Stewart, examines the legends surrounding the poet. Stewart aims to give readers a more honest portrayal of this Elizabethan figure.
  • Edited by Arthur Symons, A Pageant of Elizabethan Poetry (1906) is a collection of writings by the major poets of the Elizabethan age, including Sidney. Symons also includes selections from lesser-known poets of the time.

"Ye Goatherd Gods" is interesting on many levels. The emotional state of the shepherds is not something that the poem explores all that deeply, but through the imagery, hyperbole, and sense descriptions, Sidney brings great breadth to those emotional states' expression. The sense images are relatable to the reader, which makes it easier to feel what the shepherds feel. Seeing through their eyes, hearing through their ears, feeling with their skin, and even smelling through their noses allows the reader the unique opportunity to become the shepherds and participate in their heightened emotional state. Many poets try to achieve this effect by writing about love in a universal way, so that the reader connects with the speaker through the emotion, but Sidney instead accomplishes such a connection through the senses.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "Ye Goatherd Gods," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

Robert E. Stillman

In the following excerpt, Stillman examines Sidney's sources for "Ye Goatherd Gods," arguing that the poet's borrowings become a part of the overall theme of the sestina.

Astrophil boasts to Stella: "I am no pick-purse of another's wit." In general, both for himself and for his creator, his boast holds good. It is almost always more profitable to approach Sidney's poetry from the vantage of specific traditions than specific "sources." He covers his tracks unusually well. "Ye goat-herd gods" is an exception to this rule. It is deservedly the best known of The Old Arcadia's poems, and, not surprisingly, it is the eclogue most frequently written about. Although some of this criticism has been helpful—Empson's and Kalstone's in particular—Sidney's sestina has suffered both by its treatment outside of the original context for which it was written and by an oversight which has allowed its most important "source" to go unrecognized. (We are actually discussing "motives" for writing since Sidney's debts are an integral part of the poem's meaning.) In "Ye goat-herd gods" he deviates from his usual methods of composition for a special purpose: the doubleness of his borrowings itself becomes a theme in a double sestina about the twin subjects of poetry and justice. Sidney acts the part of a pick-purse in order to clarify his critique of the two major traditions within the pastoral romance.


It has long been recognized that Sidney modelled his double sestina in part upon the fourth eclogue in Sannazaro's Arcadia. The similarities between the two songs are numerous and striking, ranging from the likeness of their poetic forms (both are double sestinas) to the resemblance of their subject matter (both are amorous complaints). What has escaped the attention of Sidney's critics is that "Ye goat-herd gods" has a more important model in a song included in Gaspar Gil Polo's pastoral romance, Diana Enamorada. Gil Polo's work is a continuation of Montemayor's Diana, one which operates as an overtly moral and didactically simplistic criticism of Italianate pastoral. He had little taste for the licensed indulgence of Sannazaro's brand of epicurean pastoralism, and nothing but scorn for the repetition of that epicureanism in Montemayor's romance. Sannazaro's shepherds are given the freedom to indulge their passions in seeking contentment. Gil Polo's are forced to moderate their desires according to the demands of reason. In one, nature is license; in the other, it is law. The two models for "Ye goat-herd gods" stand at opposite ends of the pastoral sheepcote.

At the conclusion of the first book of Diana Enamorada, Tauriso and Berardo sing a complaint which begins "Pues ya se esconde el sol tras las montañas." The dramatic situation is almost identical to the one in Sidney's sestina. Like Strephon and Klaius, Gil Polo's shepherds are both in love with the same woman, a woman who scorns them, and, again, like Strephon and Klaius, they are described as being "commonly wont to go togither in company, and sing in emulation the one against the other" ("tenían costumbre de andar siempre de compañía, y cantar en competencia"). As is true of Sidney's shepherds, their appearances in the romance are confined to the sets of poems found at the end of each book. Even the setting is the same; "Pues ya se esconde el sol" is sung during the evening just as "Ye goat-herd gods" is.

Gil Polo's poem is not a sestina. Although written largely in ottava rima, it is best described as a polymetrical song since it contains a variety of other stanzaic types. What we find Sidney setting out to do in "Ye goat-herd gods" is to superimpose a rhetorical device employed by Gil Polo upon Sannazaro's sestina form. The elaborate network of syntactic parallels which is incorporated into the paired stanzas of Sidney's sestina and which is responsible for a large portion of the poem's strangely haunting music, as one shepherd echoes the complaints of the other, is a device borrowed from "Pues ya se esconde el sol." Just as Strephon and Klaius do, Tauriso and Berardo give vent to their agonized passions and hopeless devotion in matched alternating stanzas, and, again like Sidney's shepherds, Gil Polo's never speak directly to each other. Their laments are self-contained.

… What happens in Gil Polo's poem and in Sidney's is that two solo laments are intertwined with one another in such a way as to increase our awareness of the painful monotony suffered by the lover in the prison of his desires. Sidney succeeds in generating more intensity in "Ye goat-herd gods" than is produced in either of his models because he combines in an entirely unprecedented fashion the built-in repetitive devices of the sestina form, doubled for double effect, with the rhetorical symmetry of syntactic parallelism. It is this creative synthesis which is chiefly responsible for the poem's unique power, and which ultimately explains its meaning.


"Pues ya se esconde el sol" is the most important model for "Ye goat-herd gods" not only because of the similarities of its dramatic situation and rhetorical structures, but because Gil Polo's thematic intentions resemble Sidney's. Like Strephon and Klaius, Berardo and Tauriso exemplify "constant faith and true love" ("fe constante y amor verdadero") at the same time that their behavior provides a warning against the ferocity of uncontrolled passion. This is not to suggest that "Ye goat-herd gods" has the didactic simplicity of Gil Polo's song. It does not. By making a series of alterations in his model, Sidney incorporated into his double sestina an altogether new set of complex symbolic meanings.

Sidney does not follow Gil Polo in drawing careful distinctions between his shepherds; Tauriso is bold and passionate, Berardo is timid and modest. The characters and behavior of Strephon and Klaius are made as uniform as the syntactic parallels between stanzas, principally as a means of reinforcing our awareness of the painful monotony of the lover's psychological state. Strephon and Klaius are gentlemen in disguise as shepherds, not real shepherds like Berardo and Tauriso. At the beginning of their sestina, they address the forest gods, nymphs, and heavenly deities, not their sheep. It is no surprise that they should occupy a considerably more exalted plane of experience. At the conclusion of Gil Polo's poem, Berardo and Tauriso provide alternate reminiscences of their beloved Diana as she dallies with her husband. Sidney's sestina ends with parallel accounts of the beloved, but the vision of Strephon and Klaius is of an entirely different kind. In spite of her "alta perfición," Diana is a real woman living in a real world; her absence has no consequence for anyone besides the shepherds. (In any case, as we discover, she is only hiding behind the next bush.) The Urania whose absence Strephon and Klaius lament is not a woman to be dallied with, nor is she the kind of lady a bush is likely to conceal. She is not a lady at all, but a complex literary image. Her absence from Arcadia is symbolic of the discontent and injustice reigning throughout the state at the close of the romance's fourth book.

Not only is Urania, as the muse of astronomy, an image of heavenliness—a heavenliness which has vanished from Arcadia—she is also, as other critics have noted, Venus Urania, the object of idealized love. After seeing Pyrocles and Musidorus descend into lust as they cuddle with the princesses in the grove and bedroom of Book III, we have no difficulty in understanding her absence. The celestial Venus, as Panofsky writes, "dwells in the highest, supercelestial zone of the universe, i.e., in the zone of the Cosmic Mind, and the beauty symbolized by her is the primary and universal splendour of divinity." These commonplace Renaissance associations with Urania are evoked by Sidney's sestina, but they cannot account for all or even the most important of her symbolic functions. Venus Urania dwells in the cosmic regions; Sidney's Urania has departed, presumably to them, leaving in her wake "eternal evening" and "spoiled forests, / Turning to deserts our best pastured mountains." What Sidney has set out to do by bestowing this role upon Urania is to merge her with Astraea, the goddess of justice, whose departure from the world signalled the beginning of the iron age. No reader of pastoral romance could miss the connection. As Ovid writes at the conclusion of his description of the four ages of man:

victa iacet pietas, et virgo caede madentis
ultima caelestum terras Astraea reliquit.
(Piety lay vanquished and the maiden Astraea, last of the immortals,
abandoned the blood-soaked earth.)

The link which Sidney establishes between the muse and the goddess is not an arbitrary one. As Frances Yates points out, the female deity whom Astraea most resembles is the "Virgo Caelestis … associated with Urania"; and according to Bernard Silvestris, a medieval commentator, some writers refer to Venus Urania as Astraea, others as natural justice. The readiness with which both could be associated with Virgo, the sixth sign of the zodiac, made the conflation even easier. The frontispiece of Riccioli's astrological treatise, Almagestum novum (1651), contains a picture of Astraea as Urania.

Strephon and Klaius's mistress is called Urania rather than Astraea for one reason: because the subject of the eclogue is not justice but "everlasting justice," the cosmic power which Sidney invokes in the opening sentence of the fourth book of The Old Arcadia, and which reappears to restore Basilius to life at the romance's conclusion. As the narrator points out immediately before they sing, tying the sestina to the events of the prose world, "the general complaints of all men called in like question their particular griefs." It is fitting that Strephon and Klaius should lament the absence of justice in the opening complaint of the fourth eclogues. By doing so, they give expression to one of The Old Arcadia's central themes, for it is Basilius's unjust abdication of his responsibilities as duke which ultimately accounts for the catastrophic events of the romance, events that culminate in the public and private misfortunes of the fourth book. Philanax had urged Basilius to let his people "see the benefits of your justice daily more and more." When Strephon and Klaius make their laments, Pyrocles and Musidorus are in prison for unjust acts of their own, and the Arcadian state is a chaos of contending factions. It is in order to escape the surrounding turmoil that Strephon and Klaius withdraw with the other shepherds from "the clamorous multitude" to "the western side of a hill." Their laments are made in isolation from the mainstream of narrative events, an isolation reinforced by the fact that, as in the previous set of eclogues, none of the Arcadia's main characters joins in the songs. In three separate myths, the absence of Urania, the banishment of Philisides from Samothea, and the death of Basilius (this too is mythic), Sidney creates an extended dirge on the loss of justice in the individual and the state. (Personal injustice, as it appears in The Old Arcadia, is intemperance.) As Agelastus makes clear in his elegy for the duke:

Justice, justice, is, now, alas, oppressed;
Bountifulness hath made his last conclusion;
Goodness for best attire in dust is dressed.
The sense of loss is universal.


It is possible to treat the justice theme in "Ye goat-herd gods" as an unrelated addition to Sidney's borrowings from Sannazaro and Gil Polo only as long as the poem is approached as a statement of the need for justice rather than as a gesture to obtain it—but it is as a gesture that its poetic action must finally be understood. For the fact of greatest importance about "Ye goat-herd gods" is not that Urania has gone away but that Strephon and Klaius, struggling to obtain quiet of mind, "tarry in Arcadia" in expectation of her return. Sidney informs us that "they bare it out as well as such evil might be." As their faithful devotion to her "strait commandment" indicates, Strephon and Klaius are speaking pictures of constancy in misfortune. But more than that, they are shepherds bent upon using song in order to achieve relief, to undo misfortune. It is the paradox of their condition that they must seek contentment by abandoning it. As Strephon laments at the outset of their second song, "I joy in grief, and do detest all joys": "I turn my mind to all forms of annoys, / And with the change of them my fancy please." At the extreme of despair (their loss is also extreme), despair begins to achieve the appearance of constancy. The complexity of the stanzaic forms employed in Strephon and Klaius's laments provides the best indication of the mastery which they are attempting to achieve over their passions.

What at one stage of the argument Sidney allows us to perceive as a struggle for justice, he reveals at another as a search for contentment, a search in which poetry plays an important part. In short, while Strephon and Klaius strive to obtain relief (after all, this is why they sing), Sidney demonstrates by means of Urania's symbolic association with Astraea that they are also pursuing justice. The two pursuits are one. They are linked so closely in order to make us identify contentment as justice. This process can be made more clear.

Viewed from a slightly different perspective, Sidney's identification of contentment and justice can be seen as an act of literary criticism. Contentment is the central value of Italianate pastoral. In his Arcadia, Sannazaro creates a landscape in which the power of song and the freedom to indulge one's passions guarantees that "al mondo mal non è senza rimedio." No such freedom is provided by rigorous pastoral moralists such as Gil Polo, for whom the very notion of relief is dangerous. What Sidney sets out to do in "Ye goat-herd gods," therefore, by redefining pastoral contentment in moral terms as justice, is to reconcile differing sets of values from writers at opposite ends of the pastoral spectrum. In the process, he creates a unique, more inclusive version of his own. The doubleness of his borrowings from Gil Polo and Sannazaro is a signal of that attempted reconciliation.

The fact that Sidney's sestina is a gesture as well as a statement, an effort to obtain justice, not merely to bemoan its loss, is an indication of the degree to which the power of poetry is itself a subject of the song: How much can the poet actually accomplish? Again, we are confronted by doubleness as Sidney incorporates into its design a picture of the dangers of uncontrolled "fancy," and an illustration of the power of the imagination to provide the relief which justice brings.

Strephon and Klaius suffer the poet-lover's worst tragedy: a frustration of desire resulting in the transformation of the natural world into a subjectively conceived landscape echoing with despair. Unsatisfied passion has forced them to live among "monstrous mountains" and valleys filled with "foul affliction." Even music sometimes appears within that landscape to compound their sufferings. Toward the end of the poem, Strephon curses "the fiddling finders-out of music," and Klaius fears that he will "grow mad with music." Far from receiving explicit support as a means of supplying relief, song appears in much of the sestina's rhetoric as simply another especially perilous form of torture.

There is a different and ultimately truer perspective from which to view the sestina's poetic action, one that is incorporated into its symbolic structure. The key to "Ye goat-herd gods" lies in its repeating end-words. The six nouns are arranged in a carefully delineated pattern of matched opposites: "mountains" contrast with "valleys," "morning" with "evening." The arrangement of the first stanza reinforces these contrasts, just as it makes clear that although "forests" and "music" are not similarly opposed, they take their place within a more comprehensive balancing scheme. It is crucial to note that the only end-word which does not correspond to a physical object or to an exclusively natural phenomenon is "music," and it is music which is found in the sestina's first stanza, mediating between the opposing worlds of space ("mountains," "valleys," "forests") and time ("morning," "evening"). It assumes this position again in the central stanza of the poem and in the concluding coda, as a symbol of the potential power of song to achieve concord between the two opposing dimensions which constitute the totality of experience.

… This grandiose metaphysical gesture of concordia discors parallels the activity of the shepherds in attempting to achieve relief by balancing present agonies against past content, and at another stage of the allegory, in striving to achieve justice by making use of song to construct a portrait of Urania. The same mountains and forests which define throughout much of the sestina the limits of the lovers' mental landscape are employed in its final two stanzas, as the shepherds' music begins to take effect, in creating an image of the ideal beloved.

… It is possible to interpret these final stanzas as a triumph of poetic concord, a triumph of the poet's ability, by reconciling opposites in nature, to achieve contentment and a vision of absolute justice. It is preferable to interpret them as a prophecy of triumph that remains only potential, as a goal of the poet's immediate and continuing activity: "Our morning hymn this is, and song at evening." Potential carries with it the possibility of failure—always a real possibility in Sidney's world—the chance that the attempt to realize a subjectively conceived ideal will lead to the frustration of desire and to the agonizing condition in which music is madness.

The sestina's apocalyptic imagery serves a similar purpose. When Klaius laments, "Long since my thoughts chase me like beasts in forests, / And make me wish myself laid under mountains," the Actaeon myth is brought into contact with the Book of Revelation, as the shepherd joins "every bondsman, and every free man" who calls "to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb" (Rev. 6:15-16). When Strephon replies in the immediately adjacent verses, "Meseems I see the high and stately mountains / Transform themselves to low dejected valleys," Sidney alludes to another eschatological passage, this time from Isaiah: "The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain" (Isa. 40:3-4).

The religious events are the vehicle, not the tenor, in Sidney's extended metaphor of everlasting justice. This is not a poem about the apocalypse or about man's fall from grace. It is not even what needs to be called a Christian poem. The apocalyptic passages are introduced to heighten our awareness of the profound injustice suffered by the individual and the state in Urania's absence. But they do something more than that as well. After the apocalypse comes the heavenly Jerusalem and divine justice. Like the anticipation of Strephon and Klaius for the return of Urania, these passages are instrumental in transferring the golden age from a past image recollected in the present into a myth of everlasting justice to be fulfilled in the future. The Old Arcadia contains its own prophetic fulfillment as justice is restored with Basilius's "resurrection" at the end of the fifth book. Sidney, too, can sing in a slightly higher key ("paulo maiora"). For a time, he follows in the messianic tradition of Virgil's fourth eclogue by creating his own prophetic allegory of man's aspiration for a golden age of piety and justice.

Examined in this light, Urania's symbolic character takes on new significance. She is not only, as the muse of astronomy, an image of heavenliness, and as Venus Urania, a representation of divine beauty, she is also, as a figure "whose parts maintained a perfect music," an ideal of celestial harmony. This much has already been pointed out by Sidney's critics. It is the implications of these facts that have gone unnoticed. By merging Urania with Astraea, Sidney is able to coalesce into a single image the action of poetry and justice as a kind of harmony. Of equal importance is his success in forging this link while revealing that both operate by means of a single process. Celestial harmony, like the music of the spheres which Urania's "least word" controls, is produced by concordia discors. The balance which makes good poetry can also lead to the contentment of a just life.

Sidney's borrowings from Gil Polo and Sannazaro now appear more purposeful. The elaborate system of syntactic parallels which he adopted from "Pues ya esconde el sol" and which he imposed upon Sannazaro's sestina form demonstrates its appeal as a useful means of establishing concord by making harmony out of the discordant passions of Strephon and Klaius in their struggle to achieve justice and contentment. At the same time, these borrowings are themselves an overt signal to the reader of Sidney's intention to reconcile the two most important trends in the history of pastoral romance. This is not simply a gesture of deference and good will. Because his version of pastoral is more inclusive than those of his predecessors, Sidney clearly implies, it is a better version. The reconciliation which takes place in "Ye goat-herd gods" is a way of demonstrating the superiority of this sestina and The Old Arcadia as a whole to the pastorals of Sannazaro and Gil Polo.

Source: Robert E. Stillman, "Poetry and Justice in Sidney's ‘Ye Goat-Herd Gods,’" in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 39-50.

Gary L. Litt

In the following excerpt, Litt offers an explanation, based on the study of rhetoric, regarding the characterization in "Ye Goatherd Gods."

Sidney's "Ye Goatherd Gods" is a masterful demonstration of formal and verbal artifice. The poem is virtually unmatched in rhetorical intricacy and complex manipulation of mood and environment, and deserves the praise and careful attention Empson, Kalstone, Ransom, and others have given it. However, the depth, charm, and accomplishment of the poem is even more considerable upon recognition of the complex characterization of the shepherds—an aspect of the work which has generally been ignored. This characterization is a culminating effect of the poem, for Sidney not only masters an unnatural and difficult form, but also presents a mini-drama in which there is subtle differentiation of Klaius and Strephon, a definite pattern of emotional and psychological movement, and an attempt to examine several Renaissance rhetorical and philosophical stances through the characters, styles, and thoughts of the shepherds.

For many years, despite my great admiration for "Ye Goatherd Gods," and Sidney's rhetorical brilliance in the poem, I was bothered by certain passages. Occasional lines and phrases seemed flat, awkward, or harsh; they gave the jarring sense of poetic wrong notes. I could not believe that a poet who could reach such peaks of verbal felicity in the poem would have Klaius mumbling his heartbrokenness in stale, unwieldy metaphors of molehills and mountains (l. 23). Furthermore, I was disturbed by certain grammatical and syntactical problems as Sidney allowed molehills to "fill the vales with cries instead of music" (l. 24), or as a shepherd bumbled his way through a line such as, "Curse to myself my prayer is, the morning" (l. 55). It would be easy to attribute such awkwardness to the difficulties of the form, but finally it occurred to me that Sidney might be giving the shepherds different rhetorical idioms in order to establish certain character distinctions between Strephon and Klaius. At first the idea seemed far-fetched, but, in fact, upon careful examination, the most bothersome passages seemed to be those spoken by Klaius.

In "Ye Goatherd Gods" Sidney uses imagery, diction, syntax, grammar, and metaphor to differentiate the shepherds in order to present two "types" of Renaissance character and style. These types provide a base against which the shepherds' emotional frustration at the loss of Urania can be measured and through which Sidney can explore the capacity of imagination, language, literary patterns, memory, and the pastoral setting to manage and compensate for archetypal loss—loss of love, life, harmony, justice, Eden.

The characterization of the shepherds is coordinated with brilliant structural development in the poem. Sidney slowly evinces the characters of Klaius and Strephon during the first eight stanzas. Yet, even while the two shepherds are being carefully distinguished, we see the dramatic psychological movement towards fragmentation and disintegration of those characters. Stanzas nine and ten present a violent alteration of the shepherds' personalities; this change of character is manifested in their alien thought processes and is emphasized by the breakdown of the syntactical and verbal parallelism of the poem. Finally, in stanzas eleven and twelve the remembrance of Urania returns some order and harmony to the world and their identities, though the memory alone cannot dispell their melancholy or the chaos of a fallen world. Furthermore, and this is more speculative, in the final stanzas Sidney may be forcing on us an examination of the two approaches to experience represented by Klaius (active, plain, passionate, natural) and Strephon (contemplative, rhetorical, melancholy, civilized), and, in my opinion, offering a judgment slightly favoring Klaius, who has a more direct, selfless approach to life.

Stanzas one and two establish the mood, the context of the lament, the environment (and words) for the sestina variation. Subtle differences already appear in the ways the shepherds respond to the environment and display their grief. Strephon speaks in a quiet, reflective mood as he calls up a scene of natural beauty and harmony in the invocation to his deities. Then in lines four through six, he gently modulates into an awareness of grief. Strephon is a creature of memory and carefully orchestrated moods. He savors contrasts and intensifies his grief by dwelling on them. His is a complex, multiple-perspectived view which is less immediate than that of Klaius, more aware of the past, the self-conscious present, and their relationship to the future. Klaius, on the other hand, responds impulsively, passionately. He seldom calculates for effect, shows little "literary" concern, displays slight awareness of anything but his present grief. The structural patterns of his laments emerge out of imitation of Strephon's lead. A creature of the present, he lives in a transformed environment of "woeful" valleys and "savage" mountains with little thought that there was ever another. He is mastered by his grief, which colors his perception of his environment.

These initial differences of response partially evolve out of the Renaissance character type each persona represents. Though both Strephon and Klaius are shepherds, the poem makes it clear that Strephon is a "literary" shepherd (such as Colin Clout?), having little to do with the actual mechanics of herding, and that Klaius, "every morning" is "hunting the wild inhabiters of forests" (ll. 19-20). In actuality, we are dealing with the ancient archetypes of shepherd and hunter, and the Renaissance reader would anticipate, more readily than we do, differences of perspective, interest, and personality. We see the first of many of these differences in the invocation of each "shepherd." Strephon invokes one class of shepherd deities—goatherd gods (pans?), nymphs, and satyrs. Quietly absorbed by his immediate environment, Strephon turns to its attendant spirits and merrymakers. There is something low-keyed, unified, perhaps consciously literary in his choice. Moreover, beginning at such a level, he can rise more climactically to the summit of his grief. The group itself has numerous social, literary and, if it is not too early to raise this spectre, sexual associations.

Klaius, on the other hand, begins his invocation by intently praying to the Olympians—Mercury, Diana, Venus. For Klaius, however, they are not mere literary abstractions as Strephon's nymphs and satyrs must be, for in Klaius' concrete way, he is really addressing part of his environment, the planets Mercury and Venus, and the moon. It is this visual reality which appeals to Klaius, for if we look at the intellectual reality of his choice of deities (something Strephon would be aware of) we find a slight obtuseness, or, perhaps more accurately, a lack of calculation as to literary and intellectual implications. Addressing Mercury, the shepherd deity, is quite appropriate. But there is strain in linking Diana and Venus, chastity and sexual fertility, in this trinity, to complain about the loss of the virtuous Urania's love and presence. We can see what effect Klaius is after—he wants a deity for shepherds, for hunters, and for lovers; but here, as so often in the poem, Klaius reaches after an effect to follow and match Strephon's lead and is only partially successful because of his lack of calculation and rhetorical orientation. As a result, we are often left with an impression of relative roughness, occasionally even crudity, compared to Strephon's sophisticated and considered use of language and materials.

The shepherds' rhetoric in these two stanzas does not differ radically; yet, there are differences. Strephon has finer musical modulation: "Ye goatherd gods, that love the grassy mountains" (l. 1); and he uses more alliteration, placing it in closely linked and intertwined patterns, including internal rhyme: "Which to my woes give still an early morning,/ And draws the dolor on till weary evening" (ll. 5-6). Throughout the poem Klaius uses less alliteration and fewer figures than Strephon. (Sidney, in this matter of alliteration, as in others, allows only enough discrepancy between the two characters to indicate a difference of usage.) In addition, in line eleven Klaius perhaps displays a certain limitation of imagination or inspiration, being forced to repeat one of Strephon's lines in its entirety: "Vouchsafe your silent ears to plaining music."

Stanzas three and four intensify the development of character by considering the individual shepherd's relationship to society and by a glimpse into the psychology of each persona. The two stanzas also establish the verbal and syntactical parallelism of response suggested in the first two stanzas; this will dominate the form until stanzas nine and ten, when such parallelism is broken to suggest emotional chaos.

In stanza three, Strephon begins with a recognition of his social relationship. He is a "free burgess," citizen of the forests. He is linked to the community; his reference to sports (l. 14) and his musical reputation, "I, that was once esteemed for pleasant music" (l. 15), further underline a social orientation. Banishment, even self-imposed (l. 16), brings great pain for Strephon, but it also gives him the raw materials out of which he creates his mood, contrasts, songs.

Klaius is less socially oriented; he is a loner, a hunter who daily stalks the forest with autonomy and self-confidence. He has innumerable heirs from Natty Bump[p]o to Mellors. Klaius is his own world. He shows his independence, and, perhaps, egoism, in his variation on the theme of music. Strephon laments that he was "once esteemed" for music (l. 15). Klaius' parallel response begins, "I, that was once the music of these valleys …" (l. 21). Because of its curious ambiguity, there are several ways to interpret this statement, but all tend to emphasize Klaius' assertive independence. In terms of Klaius' music the passage suggests that he sees himself the only judge of its quality. Peer judgment and approval are unimportant to him; he is the music. In his isolation as hunter we can quite understand this perspective, but the ambiguity of the phrase suggests that Klaius sees himself as the essential harmonizing element of his environment. Like Wallace Stevens' jar, Klaius brings order and harmony to the wilds, perhaps to the world at large. However, this curious phrase about Klaius' music might be less a philosophical or psychological riddle than an example of his rhetorical ineptness, for, if we pursue the meaning of this passage, we find Klaius mixing his metaphors (and senses) as his music turns into darkness (l. 22). This mixed metaphor is even more apparent since we have just seen Strephon delicately thread his way through a sentence fraught with syntactical and psychological complexities and yet keep his metaphor intact as he ends up not a poet-songster but a "screech owl" (l. 18). Klaius' syntactical and referential difficulties are further emphasized as he has molehills filling the vales with cries in lines twenty-three and twenty-four. By the end of stanza four, rather clear-cut distinctions exist between Strephon and Klaius in terms of their use of language, and the two are also beginning to diverge psychologically.

Klaius' rhetorical problems are not meant to condemn him, and, in fact, he is not anti-rhetorical or unrhetorical. He is simply not intellectually or verbally as facile as Strephon. Though he is a long way from the plain style, within the context of Strephon's rhetorical practice, Klaius seems to partake of elements of plain-style philosophy. His plainer, rougher idiom is appropriate for a hunter and might be seen as more sincere and direct. The plainer poet often gives the impression of being a little nearer to the truth, so Klaius' roughness is not necessarily a disadvantage in the poem. He is using a different idiom, speaking out of a different psychology and experience. Let us look a little closer at that psychology, and Strephon's, as the two figures emerge out of these early stanzas.

Stanzas one through four have deftly sketched the fundamental characters and psychologies of Strephon and Klaius through a combination of traditional character associations, responses to their environment, and rhetorical usage. Stanzas five and six begin to demonstrate how the behavior and thinking of the lovers, under the strain of grief, slowly become distorted and how Strephon and Klaius subtly meditate self-destruction in what might be seen as a traditional response to grief—a potential channel and sublimation which in this instance is not successful as relief.

Strephon's death meditations begin with the eminently poetic evocation of the swan song: "Long since, alas, my deadly swannish music/Hath made itself a crier of the morning" (ll. 25-26). His life has become disjointed, and his focus, as we might suspect from an artist and "intellectual," is on his song and mind; the one has become a "deadly" honk, the other a barren desert. Stanza five reeks of despair, desolation, death. There are no more rational and ritualistic (artistic) channels left for Strephon's impulses of grief, and we can soon expect radical changes. We are nearly at the limits of the capacity of metaphor, ritual, language, tradition, perhaps art in general, to contain and structure grief. Strephon's mind, after one last attempt at verbal ordering, will break dangerously free of its conventional controls and will move into an orgy of transformations in stanza nine.

Klaius' life has also become disjointed and death oriented, but he lacks the conventional techniques for channeling his grief. Unlike Strephon, he does not dwell on the internal and psychological effects of his anguish on his music or self. His sorrow is intense and plain; his death-wish is expressed in terms which emerge out of his immediate experiences with the environment. In fact, nearly all he says in this stanza is in direct response to an external environment. His songs alienate the people; he hates night and day (expressed in plain terms with a simple repetition in line thirty-four of "hate"). In his unnatural "passive" condition his thoughts chase him like beasts, as he draws the material for his simile from a simple reversal of his normal hunting activity. We, of course, see an image of Acteon and his fate in line thirty-five, but Sidney's point is, I believe, that Klaius does not see the correspondence, for he is writing out of his own experience, not literary tradition and associations. Finally, the stanza ends with a direct and simple death-wish; the active and proud Klaius would like to be "laid under mountains" (l. 36)….

Source: Gary L. Litt, "Characterization and Rhetoric in Sidney's ‘Ye Goatherd Gods,’" in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 1978, pp. 115-24.


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Sidney, Sir Philip, "Ye Goatherd Gods," in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, edited by Alexander W. Allison, Herbert Barrows, Caesar R. Blake, Arthur J. Carr, Arthur M. Eastman, and Hubert M. English, W.W. Norton, 1983, pp. 153-54.


Asch, Ronald G., Nobilities in Transition, 1550-1700: Courtiers and Rebels in Britain and Europe, Arnold, 2003.

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the nobility in Europe started changing, both socially and politically. Asch looks at the roots of the transformation, the nature of the changes, and how this affected the way the nobility interacted with royalty.

Heninger, S. K., Jr., Sidney and Spenser: The Poet as Maker, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Heninger explores the literary kinship of Sidney and Spenser and how their works together contributed significantly to, and even altered, the course of English literature.

Maclean, Hugh, and Anne Lake Prescott, eds., Edmund Spenser's Poetry: Authoritative Texts, Criticism, Norton, 1993.

Maclean and Prescott gather together the major and minor works by Spenser, complete with commentary guiding the reader through each selection. The book also includes a lengthy section consisting of articles by scholars and critics.

Muir, Kenneth, "Sidney and Political Pastoral," in Sir Philip Sidney, Longmans, Green, 1984, pp. 91-108.

Muir reviews the history of both of Sidney's versions of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia and his purpose in recasting it. Muir also provides an overview of scholarly treatment of the works over time.

Picard, Liza, Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Drawing from numerous letters and diaries, Picard describes in detail what life was like in Elizabeth's England. Topics ranging from family life and religion to cost of living, water supply, and buildings are covered.