Sidney, Philip (1554–1586)

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SIDNEY, PHILIP (15541586)

SIDNEY, PHILIP (15541586), English poet, courtier, and statesman. Born at Penshurst (Kent) to Sir Henry Sidney, viceroy of Ireland, and Lady Mary Dudley, sister of Queen Elizabeth's favorite, the earl of Leicester, Sidney was educated at Shrewsbury and Christ Church, Oxford, and then sent on a three-year tour of the Continent in 1572. In Paris he made the acquaintance of Sir Francis Walsingham, the English ambassador (whose daughter Frances he was to marry in 1583), and of Hubert Languet, an older Huguenot political observer who became his friend and mentor. Narrowly escaping the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 24 August 1572, Sidney spent a year at the University of Padua, and then traveled the Continent from Florence to Cracow.

Back in England (1575), he represented his father at court, and in 1577 was chosen to head a congratulatory embassy to the new Emperor Rudolph II, secretly exploring possibilities for a Protestant coalition against the pope's Holy League. That project came to nothing, but Sidney acquitted himself brilliantly.

The next few years saw him cutting a dash at court and writing a masque, The Lady of May (1578), with Queen Elizabeth in a deciding role (the masque was written in such a form that at the end the queen was given the role of deciding which suitor the Lady of May should accept). When in 1579 Spanish successes revived the project of the queen's French marriage, the court's alarmed Protestants chose Sidney to write an open letter dissuading her from wedding the duke of Alençon. He also quarreled with the dissolute earl of Oxford, one of the marriage's supporters, was rebuked by the queen on grounds of rank (even though Sidney was in the right, in a quarrel with an earl, a mere gentleman should give way), and withdrew for a year to Wilton, the country manor of his sister Mary, the countess of Pembroke. Here he began his three major literary works, the treatise A Defence of Poesy, the prose romance Arcadia, and the sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella. ("Astrophel" is the spelling long used, but the consensus among most modern scholars is that the double pun of "Astrophil" is too good not to have been intended. He is the "Astro-phile"the Star-Loverand his name is "PHIL-ip.")

The graceful Defence (c. 1580, published 1595; also called The Apologie for Poetrie ) adapts Continental literary concepts to English conditions. Imitating a legal speech for the defense, it claims for "poesy" (imaginative writing) the highest role in moral education, and passionately defends the poet's faculty of "invention" which makes poesy, alone among human arts and sciences, the equal of creating Nature, under the overall authority of God.

Astrophil and Stella (c. 1581, published 1591), based upon but not tied to Sidney's love for Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich, uses the Defence' s principle of energia (liveliness or poesy's power to "move" its readers) dramatically to revive the 250-year-old Petrarchan sonnet sequence. Its rhetoric movingly dissects the way esteem becomes love, love becomes desire, and desire eventually undermines true love. Its vitality created a wave of English sonnet sequences and influenced John Donne (15731631) and his followers George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Thomas Traherne, Thomas Carew, and Andrew Marvell.

The Arcadia, begun in 1580 and written initially for his sister Mary, also adapts Continental models, especially Jacopo Sannazaro's "Arcadia" (1504) and Jorge de Montemayor's "Diana" (c. 1559). Its adventures of two princes, Musidorus and Pyrocles, in combat and in love (with the princesses Pamela and Philoclea), are interspersed with eclogues in which shepherds' singing matches become virtuoso poetic experiments. This first version, now known as the Old Arcadia, only circulated in manuscript, and was then lost until 1908.

Sidney's later revision, now known as the New Arcadia, remained unfinished at his death. It was subsequently completed with the ending of the old and issued as a composite (1593): this became the Arcadia read until the twentieth century. The New Arcadia consistently moves toward greater narrative complexity and less frivolity: it is a more "serious" work, concerned with principles of both public and private (self-) government.

The early 1580s saw Sidney engrossed in preparations for war with Spain and writing more religious works: he versified the first forty-three Psalms (later magnificently completed by his sister Mary), and began a translation of Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas' La semaine (1578; The week) on the Creation (since lost), as well as an English version of his French friend Philippe Duplessis-Mornay's work The Trewnesse of the Christian Religion (completed by Arthur Golding).

As Spain advanced in the Netherlands, Elizabeth finally sent troops; in return for English military aid, the queen and her government asked for three forts and fortified towns to be garrisoned by English troops and held as sureties for the repayment. In 1585, Sidney was made governor of Flushing, chief of these three cautionary places. With Prince Maurice of Orange, Sidney stormed the town of Axel, and in the autumn of 1586 helped besiege Zutphen, on the Spanish supply corridor that ran from Franche-Comté through Burgundy to the Netherlands. On 22 September 1586, against heavy odds the English attacked a Spanish column that was coming to relieve Zutphen. Sidney was wounded in the thigh, and three weeks later, at the age of thirty-one, he died of gangrene at Arnhem. He became an instant hero and in February 1587 was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, receiving the grandest funeral of any private Englishman until Winston Churchill's in 1965.

Sidney, the statesman, courtier, and convinced Protestant, is most remembered as a poet. He was a profoundly serious man, yet of great charm; a passionate man, yet deeply religious and filled with the morality of politics; a reflective man, yet a skilled and daring soldier when the occasion came. His friend Duplessis-Mornay's motto Arte et Marte ("by art and Mars") applies equally to Sidney.

See also Elizabeth I (England) ; English Literature and Language .


Primary Sources

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia : The New Arcadia. Edited by Victor Skretkowicz. Oxford, 1974.

. The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia: The Old Arcadia. Edited by Jean Robertson. Oxford, 1973.

. Miscellaneous Prose. Edited by Jan van Dorsten and Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford, 1973.

. The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by William A. Ringler, Jr. Oxford, 1962.

Secondary Sources

Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1977. Classic study of both life and work, and of their interaction.

Kalstone, David. Sidney's Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations. Cambridge, Mass., 1965. Well-balanced analysis of the secular poetry.

Stewart, Alan. Sir Philip Sidney : A Double Life. London, 2000. Excellent study especially of Sidney's political career.

Roger Kuin