BORN: November 30, 1554 • Kent, England
DIED: October 17, 1586 • Arnheim, Netherlands
English poet; courtier
Widely admired for his intelligence, courtesy, and bravery, Philip Sidney was considered by his contemporaries to be the ideal Elizabethan gentleman. He passionately supported the Protestant cause and fought with valor on the battlefield, where he was mortally wounded during a campaign to aid Dutch Protestants who had rebelled against Spanish rule. He also wrote poetry and prose that advanced the development of English literature. His Astrophel and Stella was the first sonnet sequence in English, and his Apology for Poetry was the first literary essay in English. His prose writings and his poetry profoundly influenced his contemporaries and continue to inspire new generations of writers.
"But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs; the poet is, indeed, the right popular philosopher."
Born into prestigious family
Philip Sidney was born into a prosperous family with aristocratic connections. His mother, Lady Mary Sidney, was the daughter of John Dudley (Earl of Northumberland; 1501–1553), whose oldest son was married to Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554), a descendant of the royal family. Sidney's father, Sir Henry Sidney (1529–1586), was a favored advisor of Edward VI (1537–1553), and held several important government positions during the reign of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry). Sidney's uncles, Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester; 1532–1588; see entry) and Ambrose Dudley (Earl of Warwick; c. 1528–1589), were among England's most wealthy and powerful men. In fact, Robert Dudley was one of the queen's closest personal friends.
Sidney grew up expecting to enjoy a life of influence, wealth, and fame. In 1564 he began his formal education at the Shrewsbury School, and two years later he entered Christ Church, Oxford University. Though he demonstrated exceptional intelligence, he left Oxford without completing his degree. From 1572 to 1575 he toured Europe. He was living at the English embassy in Paris at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572, when Catholic mobs killed thousands of French Protestants called Huguenots. Leaving France immediately after that traumatic event, which contributed to his hostility toward Catholicism, he visited Austria, Germany, Poland, Italy, and France. He studied languages, music, and astronomy, or the study of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies. He impressed those he met with his extraordinary gracious-ness and intelligence.
When he returned to England, Sidney spent much time with his uncle, Robert Dudley, who helped him maintain influential connections that would advance his career. In 1576 Sidney traveled to Ireland, where his father was serving as lord deputy. Ireland had been under English rule since the twelfth century, but over the years English administrators there had gradually reverted to Irish customs. Rival chieftains competed for power, and English laws were not effectively enforced. After Elizabeth became queen, she began taking steps to bring Ireland under control. But the Irish were not easily subdued; the chieftains waged war against English troops sent to maintain order. Sir Henry Sidney, who was named lord deputy in 1565, governed the country with skill, but he employed ruthless measures to subdue rebellions. Many of the queen's advisors criticized his policies. Seeing conditions in Ireland for himself, Philip Sidney wrote Discourse on Irish Affairs, which he presented to the queen in defense of his father's administration.
Begins writing poetry
In 1577 Sidney undertook a diplomatic assignment to Germany. His task was to try to organize Protestants there against Catholic rule. Little came of this effort, however, and he returned to England soon afterward. During this period he began to cultivate several literary friendships. He met poets such as Fulke Greville (1554–1628), Edward Dyer (d. 1607), and Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; see entry), whose efforts to create a new kind of English poetry inspired him to attempt writing as well. He wrote several experimental poems during the late 1570s. He also wrote Lady of May, an entertainment performed in 1578 in honor of the queen.
Around this time Sidney began work on his Arcadia, most of which he wrote while living with his sister, the countess of Pembroke, to whom he dedicated the work. Arcadia mixed prose and poetry in a wide-ranging discussion of large themes such as justice, virtue, honor, friendship, love, and morality. Scholars believe Sidney wrote most of this work around 1580, but it was not published until 1590, after his death. Arcadia was immensely popular in the 1590s and the early 1600s.
During the 1580s Sidney was also working on his Apology for Poetry. This work, the first literary essay in English, was also the most important essay of its era. At the time many writers and thinkers argued that imaginative literature (such as lyric poetry and prose romances) was a waste of time because it did not tell the truth and was not serious. They believed that such literature encouraged people to believe in silly things and even to behave in immoral ways. In their view, only such subjects as history, philosophy, ethics, and religion were suitable for study. In contrast, Sidney presented a defense of imaginative literature. He argued that poetry—a term he used to encompass all imaginative literature—was a better way to approach the truth than the study of either philosophy or history. He stated further that poetry could inspire people to be virtuous, because it could describe ideal ways of living; history, on the other hand, could only describe events that had really occurred and was therefore more limited.
Sidney also criticized earlier English love poetry, saying that it lacked energy and passion. "Many of such writings as come under the banner of unresistible love," he wrote, "if I were a mistress, would never persuade me they were in love; so coldly they apply fiery speeches." Sidney argued that the English language was perfectly suited to express passion and that writers should devote their energies to developing lyric poetry in English. He concluded that poets "are so beloved of the gods that whatsoever they write proceeds of a divine fury," and added that if anyone had "so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look at the sky of poetry," then that person deserved to fail in love and to die forgotten.
Sonnets are short lyric poems, often about romantic love, that contain fourteen lines and follow a regular meter (the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) and rhyming pattern. English poets of this time admired sonnets by Italian writers such as Petrarch and began experimenting with the form. The Petrarchan sonnet consists of eight lines (called an octave) followed by six lines (called a sestet). Though English poets imitated this type of sonnet, they began creating sonnets that consisted of three groups of four lines each (quatrains), followed by a concluding rhymed couplet of two lines. Though William Shakespeare (1564–1616; see entry) was not the first to write this type of poem, it became known as the Shakespearean sonnet.
Though sonnets can employ various rhyme schemes, or the pattern of rhymes in a poem, they traditionally use a rhythm known as iambic pentameter. This is one of the most commonly used rhythms in English poetry because it follows the natural rhythms of the English language. In iambic rhythms, the second syllable of a word or phrase is stressed. Many kinds of poems in English use iambic meter, as can be seen in the first lines from a modern poem by Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening": "Whose woods these are I think I know, / His house is in the village, though." In this case, there are four stressed syllables in each line. Sonnets, however, contain five stressed syllables in each line. Iambic rhythms, as the passage from Frost shows, allow poets to use speech patterns that sound natural and relaxed instead of stiff and artificial.
In a sonnet sequence individual sonnets about a general subject are arranged in order, each poem expanding in a particular way on the sequence's general theme. Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, the first sonnet sequence in English, inspired leading poets such as Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser to compose sonnet sequences of their own. In the seventeenth century John Donne (1572–1631) and John Milton (1608–1674) expanded the sonnet's thematic range from romantic love to religious feelings and other serious philosophical issues. The sonnet remained a popular form through the nineteenth century; poets such as John Keats (1795–1821) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850) frequently wrote sonnets. Though less common in modern literature, sonnets can convey complex feelings within the strict boundaries of a concise form.
Like Arcadia, Apology for Poetry circulated among Sidney's friends in manuscript form. It was extremely influential, contributing to a renewed interest in exploring the poetic possibilities of the English language. Apology for Poetry was not published until 1595, after the poet's death.
Astrophel and Stella
Sidney had meanwhile fallen in love with Penelope Devereux, daughter of the earl of Essex. He longed to marry her, but in 1581 she married Lord Rich. She became the inspiration for the figure of Stella in Sidney's sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella. In these poems, a young man, Astrophel (from the Greek words for star and lover) addresses his love, Stella (from the Latin word for star). Astrophel expresses the various feelings associated with romantic love, including the struggle in his heart between reason and passion, ideal love and physical desire. These poems, which Sidney's friends read in manuscript form, were greatly admired. The sequence was first published in 1591 and inspired numerous imitations.
Though Astrophel and Stella was modeled to some extent on the sonnets of the Italian writer Petrarch (1304–1374), Sidney claimed that his poems sprang freely out of his own heart without any careful attention to formal rules. Therefore, he felt his poems were much more than a rehashing of older literary conventions. He aimed to infuse a more personal and dramatic energy into his sonnets than could be found in earlier models. By using more natural language and by writing about his emotions in the present time—not as if he were remembering them much later—Sidney succeeded in making the Elizabethan sonnet a more natural and energetic type of love poem than earlier lyric forms had been.
Death on the battlefield
In 1583 Sidney married Frances Walsingham (1569–1631), daughter of the queen's secretary of state, Francis Walsingham (1530–1590; see entry). That year Sidney was also made a knight. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.) He was a passionate supporter of the Protestant cause in England, and he advocated policies that would strengthen the development of a reformed Protestant church. With other committed Protestant leaders such as his uncle, Robert Dudley, he urged the queen to send military aid to Protestants in Europe who were rebelling against their Catholic monarchs. Sidney believed that it was not only England's duty to help fellow Protestants, but also that England's security was at stake. Catholic power in Europe threatened Elizabeth's authority; in fact, Philip II (1527–1598; see entry) of Spain had been associated with conspiracies to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry). Many in Elizabeth's government recommended an aggressive foreign policy that included direct aid to Protestant revolutionaries in Europe.
Though the queen was reluctant to commit England to costly and controversial wars, the threat from Spain intensified during the late 1580s. In 1585 she finally agreed to send troops to the Netherlands. Sidney accompanied his uncle, Dudley, who had been given command of the expedition. Several months after arriving in Europe Sidney received a leg wound at the battle of Zutphen on September 22, 1586. The wound did not heal, and Sidney died three weeks later at the age of thirty-one.
Sidney's death prompted a huge outpouring of grief. The Dutch proclaimed him a national hero. More than one thousand English troops in the Netherlands gathered at the docks to pay their respects as his coffin was loaded onto a ship to be taken back to England. In London the streets were crowded with people who reportedly cried "Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived!" as his coffin passed them. Tributes to Sidney from more than 140 writers were collected and published in three volumes, while dozens of his friends wrote independent tributes.
Sidney died in debt, without ever having published any of his writings. His father-in-law, Walsingham, took on the responsibility for his debts. Sidney's family saw to it that all of his works were published, though it took almost a decade. Immensely popular in England, Sidney's works also attracted interest in Europe. In the early 1600s they were translated into Dutch, Spanish, Italian, German, and French.
Writers of Sidney's and later generations were profoundly influenced by his writings. Many of his contemporaries dedicated poems or books to him. Edmund Spenser, for example, paid tribute to Sidney in his poem "Astrophel." Modern poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) mentioned Sidney in "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory," describing the poet as "our perfect man."
For More Information
Ousby, Ian, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Ruoff, James E., ed. Major Elizabethan Poetry and Prose. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.
"Sir Philip Sidney." Renaissance English Literature, http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/sidney.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Sir Philip Sidney World Bibliography." Resources in Renaissance Literature at St. Louis University. http://bibs.slu.edu/ (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Stump, Donald. "Sidney as a 'Renaissance Man.'" Sir Philip Sidney Online. http://bibs.slu.edu/sidney/history.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).