Sidney, Philip 1554–1586 English Poet

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Sidney, Philip
English poet

Philip Sidney was one of the leading poets of Renaissance England. His work had a major influence on the flowering of English literature, arts, and music in the late 1500s and early 1600s. A member of the nobility, Sidney held a place in the inner circle of writers, artists, scientists, and men of action at the court of Elizabeth I. His death while fighting Spanish soldiers in the Netherlands turned Sidney into a national hero.

Life and Times. Although relatively poor by noble standards, Sidney's family had connections among the wealthiest and most powerful figures in England. His mother, Mary Dudley, was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth; she tended the queen when she came down with smallpox (and caught the disease herself as a result). His uncle, Robert Dudley, was one of Elizabeth's favorite courtiers and, according to rumors, her lover. Sidney himself was named after the Spanish king Philip II, who attended his christening and referred to him as "my godson." Other members of Sidney's family were famous as traitors. Several of his relatives lost their heads for their involvement in a plot—which succeeded briefly—to place Sidney's aunt, Lady Jane Grey, on the English throne.

At the age of 13, Sidney entered Oxford University. There he received an excellent education centered on the Bible and on Latin and Greek literature. When he was 22, Sidney took a three-year grand tour of continental Europe. During his years abroad he mastered a number of languages and met with many of the leading artists, scientists, and scholars of his day. He also witnessed the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France in 1572, in which Catholics murdered thousands of Huguenots. This event may have influenced Sidney's writings, which contain many descriptions of mass violence.

After returning to England, Sidney became a favorite at the royal court and was knighted in 1583. A year later he signed on with Sir Francis Drake to explore the New World. When Queen Elizabeth discovered his plans, however, she put a stop to them by sending Sidney to the Netherlands as the new governor of the town of Flushing. At the time England controlled this town as part of an agreement to assist the Dutch, who were involved in a struggle against Catholic Spain. In 1586 Sidney died of injuries suffered during an attack on Spanish supply lines.

Literary Achievements. Sidney's literary reputation rests chiefly on three major works. The first is his Defence of Poetry, one of the Renaissance's greatest critical writings. In this influential text, Sidney praised poetry as an art form with more power to cure the soul than either history or philosophy. He argued that poetry—a term he used to refer to all forms of imaginative writing—made the bitter truths of philosophy more acceptable by hiding them under the sweet coating of an appealing story. A poetic work, Sidney claimed, inspired its readers to improve themselves morally by making them identify with the heroes and heroines who face moral conflicts in the story. He saw the world of the imagination as superior to the natural world, since the poet is free to describe things that never were real but that might have been or even should have been. Sidney's work also reviewed the course of English literature and challenged his fellow writers to imitate, in English, the great achievements of the ancient Greek and Roman poets.

Scholars have described Sidney's second major work, Arcadia, as the first English novel. The modern writer Virginia Woolf claimed that Sidney's romance* contained "all the seeds of English fiction." It blended a variety of styles, including letters, stories within stories, and tales told from both the first-person and the third-person viewpoint. It also established certain themes that became standard in later English novels, such as escapes from drowning, crowd scenes, and events set in courts of law and in royal courts. Sidney's work also portrayed female characters with unusual skill and sensitivity.

Sidney's third notable work was Astrophel and Stella (1581), a series of love sonnets* about a brilliant, yet self-deceiving young man who pursues the charming Stella, a young woman unhappily married to another man. Astrophel and Stella offers a marvelous psychological study of the foolishness of human desire, the joy of poetic ambition, and the sorrows of love. Throughout the work Sidney mocks his own use of such concepts as the notion of the ideal and the lasting power of love.

Sidney's other works include a short, humorous drama, another collection of sonnets, and part of a translation of the biblical Book of Psalms. Sidney's sister Mary completed this work after his death.

(See alsoEnglish Language and Literature; France; Netherlands; Poetry, English. )

* romance

adventure story of the Middle Ages, the forerunner of the modern novel

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme