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Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney

The English poet, courtier, diplomat, and soldier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) realized more dramatically than any other figure of the English Renaissance the ideal of the perfect courtier and the universal gentleman.

The son of a noble and well-connected family, Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst, his father's estate in Kent. His formal education began with his entrance into the Shrewsbury School in 1564. In 1568 he moved on to Christ Church, Oxford. Sidney's correspondence and school records indicate that as a youth he already showed clear signs of brilliance but that he was of sober temperament and uncertain health. Leaving Oxford without a degree, as was not uncommon for noblemen, Sidney completed his education with a 3-year tour of the Continent (1572-1575), visiting France, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Italy.

Life at Court

On his return to England, Sidney entered quickly into the life of the aristocracy, dividing his time between the London house of his uncle, the powerful Earl of Leicester, and the country home of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. Late in 1576 he paid a visit to his father, then Lord Deputy of Ireland, and observed political and social conditions in Ireland firsthand. Upon returning to England he addressed to the Queen a Discourse on Irish Affairs, defending his father's administration from the many criticisms leveled against it. In 1577 Sidney was sent on a diplomatic mission to Germany, during which he enthusiastically but unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the quarreling Protestant factions and to organize a unified resistance against the Catholic nations.

Sidney's interests and relationships, however, were not restricted to the worlds of the court and diplomacy. He enjoyed frequent contacts with a variety of literary men, notably Thomas Drant, Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, and Edmund Spenser. In his attempt to share in their efforts to create a new English poetry, Sidney wrote a number of experimental poems in nonrhyming quantitative meters. Other works probably written during this period include his Lady of May, an elaborate entertainment performed in honor of Queen Elizabeth I (1578), a large part of his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and the first draft of his prose romance, the Arcadia. His Apology for Poetry was probably composed shortly after the publication of Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse (1579), an attack on the theater that had been dedicated to Sidney without his knowledge or approval.

Marriage and Death

Meanwhile, Sidney's situation at court was not entirely satisfactory. He had for some years been regarded as a young man of promise and importance; but he was still without any steady and remunerative position. Other disappointments may have added to his discouragement: he had for some time known and admired Penelope Devereux, the daughter of the Earl of Essex, who clearly inspired the "Stella" of his sonnet sequence. But she married Lord Rich in 1581. Two years later Sidney married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. He was knighted the same year.

Sidney had been a leader of the strong Puritan faction promoting English involvement in the wars of the Protestant Dutch against their Spanish rulers. In 1585, after Elizabeth I finally acceded to this faction's demands and sent an army to the Netherlands, Sidney was named governor of Flushing, one of the towns that the Dutch had ceded to the Queen in return for her support. For several months he fought and commanded troops at the side of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in Flanders. At the battle of Zutphen on Sept. 22, 1586, he was fatally wounded. A biography written by his friend Greville tells how Sidney was vulnerable because he had generously lent a part of his protective armor to a fellow knight.

Major Works

During his lifetime Sidney's works circulated only in manuscript. His Arcadia was the first to be printed, in 1590. Combining elements drawn from the pastoral tradition, the heroic epic, and the romances of chivalry, this long mixture of prose and verse summed up the heroic ideals that inspired Sidney's life. The Arcadia is noted for its complex plot, for its earnest digressions on such topics as justice, atheism, virtue, honor, and friendship, and for its involved and elaborate style. The published version of 1590 was a revision, much amplified and elaborated by comparison with the first draft.

In Astrophel and Stella, first printed in 1591, Sidney expressed varying moods and intensities of passionate love, in imitation of Italian and French sonneteers of the Petrarchan tradition. Sidney's simple yet delicate verse is markedly superior to that of his contemporaries. His Apology for Poetry (first published in 1595) was the first major critical essay in Renaissance England. Drawing on such foreign critics as Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro, Sidney condensed the classical defense of "poetry" (by which he meant all forms of creative writing), and he insisted on the ethical value of art, which aims to lure men to "see the form of goodness, which seen they cannot but love ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries." This critical essay, perhaps more than any other work, has assured Sidney's position in the history of literature. All three of his major works, however, hold an important place in one of the most brilliant eras of English literary creativity.

Further Reading

Sidney's Complete Works were edited by Albert Feuillerat (4 vols., 1912-1926). An excellent edition of the Poems was prepared by William A. Ringler, Jr. (1962). Full biographies of Sidney include Malcolm W. Wallace, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1915); Mona Wilson, Sir Philip Sidney (1931); and Kenneth Muir, Sir Philip Sidney (1960). Other helpful studies include Kenneth Orne Myrick, Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman (1935; 2d ed. 1965); John Buxton, Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance (1954; 2d ed. 1964); and Frederick Samuel Boas, Sidney: His Life and Writings (1955). Recent critical assessments are available in Robert L. Montgomery, Jr., Symmetry and Sense (1961); David Kalstone, Sidney's Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations (1965); and Neil L. Rudenstine, Sidney's Poetic Development (1967). For general literary background see Douglas Bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism (1939); S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1951); Hallett Darius Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (1952); and C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954).

Additional Sources

Duncan-Jones, Katherine, Sir Philip Sidney, courtier poet, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Greville, Fulke, Baron Brooke, The life of the renowned Sr Philip Sidney (1652), Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1984.

Greville, Fulke, Baron Brooke, Sir Fulke Greville's Life of Sir Philip Sidney, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.

Hamilton, A. C. (Albert Charles), Sir Philip Sidney: a study of his life and works, Cambridge Eng.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Lloyd, Julius, The life of Sir Philip Sidney, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Sidney in retrospect: selections from English literary renaissance, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Wilson, Mona, Sir Philip Sidney, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978. □

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Sidney, Sir Philip

Sir Philip Sidney, 1554–86, English author and courtier. He was one of the leading members of Queen Elizabeth's court and a model of Renaissance chivalry. He served in several diplomatic missions on the Continent and in 1586 was fatally wounded at the battle of Zutphen. Sidney exerted a strong influence on English poetry as patron, critic, and example. His literary efforts circulated only in manuscript during his lifetime. Arcadia (1590), a series of verse idyls connected by prose narrative, was written for his sister Mary, countess of Pembroke. It is the earliest renowned pastoral in English literature. Sidney's prose criticism of the nature of poetry, written as a rebuttal to Stephen Gosson's The School of Abuse, appeared in two slightly different versions—The Defense of Poesie and An Apology for Poetry (both 1595). Astrophel and Stella (1591) is one of the great sonnet sequences in English and was inspired by his love for Penelope Devereux, later Lady Rich. Sidney, however, married Frances Walsingham in 1583.

See his works ed. by A. Feuillerat (1962); The Psalms of Sir Philip Sidney and the Countess of Pembroke (ed. by J. C. A. Rathmell, 1963); biographies by M. W. Wallace (1915, repr. 1967); R. Howell (1968), J. M. Osborn (1972), and A. Stewart (2001); studies by S. M. Cooper (1968), D. Connell (1977), and D. Kay, ed. (1988).

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Sidney, Sir Philip

Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–86). Soldier and poet. Born in the year of Mary's marriage to the king of Spain, Sidney was named Philip in his honour. Educated at Shrewsbury (his father being lord president of the Council in the Marches of Wales) and at Christ Church, Oxford, he was devoted to study. From 1572 to 1575 he was on the continent, and was in Paris on the night of the massacre of St Bartholomew. In 1583 he married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, served in Parliament, and continued to win golden opinions from all his acquaintance. But in 1585 when Leicester, his uncle, was given command of the forces against Spain in the Low Countries, Sidney was made governor of Flushing, a key port. He volunteered to join Leicester in the attack upon Zutphen, was wounded in the thigh, and died of gangrene nearly a month later. His death was received with great grief. But the story that he gave his own bottle of water on the battlefield to a dying soldier was first reported by his friend Fulke Greville many years after his death and is suspiciously like a story of Alexander the Great. He left much unpublished work, including the sonnets, Arcadia, and the Apologie for Poetrie, but his posthumous reputation depended as much upon his character and courage as on his poetry.

J. A. Cannon

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Sidney, Sir Philip

Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–86) English poet, diplomat, and courtier. Sidney's intricate romance Arcadia (1590) is the earliest example of pastoral in English. His love for Penelope Devereux inspired Astrophel and Stella (1591), the first English sonnet sequence. An Apology for Poetry (1595) is the most important critical work of the Elizabethan era.

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Sydney, Sir Philip

Sir Philip Sydney: see Sidney, Sir Philip.

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Sidney, Sir Philip

Sir Philip Sidney

BORN: 1554, Kent, England

DIED: 1586, Zutphen, the Netherlands

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Poetry, fiction, criticism

MAJOR WORKS:
The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590)
Astrophel and Stella (1591)
The New Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (revision) (1593)
An Apologie for Poetry (1595)

Overview

The English poet, diplomat, and soldier Sir Philip Sidney realized more dramatically than any other figure of the English Renaissance the ideal of the perfect courtier and the universal gentleman. Sidney saw writing as an important part of a complete gentleman's portfolio of accomplishments, an idea that remains influential in education to this day. Through his arguments in An Apologie for Poetry and in his own practice, Sidney demonstrated the value of literature during the Renaissance.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Signs of Promise The son of a noble and well-connected family, Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst, his father's estate in Kent. His formal education began with his entrance into the Shrewsbury School in 1564. In 1568 he moved on to Christ Church, Oxford. Sidney's correspondence and school records indicate that as a youth he already showed clear signs of brilliance but that he was of sober temperament and uncertain health. Leaving Oxford without a degree—common for noblemen—Sidney completed his education with a three-year tour (1572–1575) of France, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Italy.

Entering a Life of Aristocracy: Travel and Diplomacy On his return to England, Sidney entered quickly into the life of the aristocracy, dividing his time between the London house of his uncle, the powerful Earl of Leicester, and the country home of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. Late in 1576 he paid a visit to his father, then Lord Deputy of Ireland, and observed political and social conditions in Ireland firsthand. Upon returning to England he addressed to the queen his “Discourse on Irish Affairs,” defending his father's administration from the many criticisms leveled against it. In 1577 Sidney was sent on a diplomatic mission to Germany, during which he enthusiastically but unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the quarreling Protestant factions and organize a unified resistance against the Catholic nations.

Literary Contact Sidney's interests and relationships were not restricted to the worlds of the court and diplomacy, however. He enjoyed frequent contacts with a variety of literary men, notably Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, and Edmund Spenser. Works probably written during this period include his Lady of May (1578), an elaborate entertainment performed in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, a large part of his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (the names mean “star lover” and “star”) (1591), and the first draft of his prose romance, the Arcadia (1590). His Apologie for Poetry (1595) was most likely composed shortly after the publication of Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse (1579), an attack on the theater that had been dedicated to Sidney without his knowledge or approval.

Dissatisfaction at Court Meanwhile, Sidney's situation at court was not entirely satisfactory. He had for some years been regarded as a young man of promise and importance, but he was still without any steady paid position. Sidney had for some time known and admired the “Stella” of his sonnets, Penelope Devereux, the daughter of the Earl of Essex, but she married someone else in 1581. Two years later Sidney married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham and was knighted the same year.

Death in the Battle of Zutphen Sidney had been a leader of the strong Puritan faction promoting English involvement in the wars of the Protestant Dutch against their Catholic Spanish rulers. This conflict, known as the Dutch Revolt or Eighty Years' War initially began as a fight for Dutch independence. In 1585, after Elizabeth I finally acceded to this faction's demands and sent an army to the Netherlands, Sidney was named governor of Flushing, one of the towns that the Dutch had ceded to the queen in return for her support. For several months he fought and commanded troops at the side of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in Flanders. At the battle of Zutphen on September 22, 1586, he was fatally wounded. A biography written by his friend Greville tells how Sidney was vulnerable because he had generously lent a part of his protective armor to a fellow knight.

Works in Literary Context

The Romance and the Pastoral Arcadia has examples of many dominant genres of the day, and taken as a whole, it becomes an innovative genre of its own. It is mostly a romance, a long prose fiction that is a prototype of the modern novel. Romance, however, makes no attempt to maintain the connections to real life or the illusions of reality that novels generally try to keep. Romances build upon the medieval stories of King Arthur and his questing knights—by Sidney's day the dragons and wizards are gone, but the heroism, atmosphere of magic, and passionate love stories remain. Sidney frames his romance in the context of a pastoral, a highly idealized vision of country life populated by lovelorn and elegant shepherds and disdainful shepherdesses. Woven throughout are songs, poems, a highly complex intrigue plot that we see in some Renaissance dramas, and a high-flown baroque writing style, making Arcadia quite different from anything that had appeared before or would appear after it. It was popular throughout the 1600s and provided ample material for dramatists, although later generations often found it unbearable: William Hazlitt called it “one of the greatest monuments of the abuse of intellectual power upon record.”

The Sonnet Sequence Sidney's was the first English sonnet sequence—a series of sonnets, each of which can stand on its own but when arranged in order tell a loose story of the progress of an affair. Sonnet sequences immediately became a fashion throughout the Renaissance. The sonnets in Astrophel and Stella, first printed in 1591, expressed varying moods and intensities of passionate love in smooth, confident, and flexible verse. Sidney was influenced, as were all Renaissance sonneteers, by the emotionally wrought Italian poetry of Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374).

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Sidney's famous contemporaries include:

Thomas Nashe (1567–1601): Nashe was one of the “university wits,” a group of displaced intellectuals who dominated the emerging theater scene in London immediately prior to Shakespeare. Only one of Nashe's plays—Summer's Last Will and Testament—survives, although he collaborated on other plays with Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510–1554): Based in Mexico, this Spanish explorer led an expedition to conquer the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. On his many difficult travels he laid claims to territory in modern-day Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Etienne Pasquier (1529–1615): Pasquier was the first French literary historian. Using scholarship that still holds up today, Pasquier made influential observations on medieval and Renaissance French literature that shaped the tastes of his era.

Nicholas Udall (1504–1556): This British schoolmaster was the author of Ralph Roister Doister, considered the first comedy written in English. It was presented to Queen Mary as an entertainment in 1553.

Richard Burbage (1567–1619): Burbage and his brother inherited one of their father's London playhouses, The Theatre, and moved the building to a new location where it was renamed The Globe. They brought in a new manager, business partner, and playwright who soon made the theater his own: a newcomer from Stratford named William Shakespeare.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539–1583): As the navigator for his half-brother Sir Walter Raleigh's voyages, Gilbert urged exploration of the Arctic Ocean to discover a passageway between Europe and North America.

Literary Criticism Sidney's Apologie for Poetry (1595) was the first major critical essay during the Renaissance, an era when England was first starting to become self-conscious of its literary tradition. Sidney condensed the classical defense of “poetry” (by which he meant all forms of creative writing), and he insisted on the ethical value of art, which aims to lure men to “see the form of goodness, which seen they cannot but love ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries.” It establishes the idea, now the familiar creed to millions of English literature majors, that imaginative literature is worth studying because it “teaches while it delights.” Sidney goes so far as to argue that this is why poetry is a more worthwhile subject of study than philosophy (too dry) and history (where sometimes the villains have to win). Literature alone is free to alter reality to show us all varieties of virtue; at the same time it makes learning persuasive by making the lessons delightful and memorable. Even apart from its bold ideas, the Apologie is seen as a classic work of literature itself for its masterly rhetorical control. Two hundred years later, one of the other great literary critics of English literature, Samuel Johnson, would borrow heavily from its ideas to place William Shakespeare once and for all into the ranks of the world's great dramatists.

Works in Critical Context

Idealized Portrait As soon as Sidney died, biographers began the process of mythologizing him as an English hero. Edmund Spenser began calling him “Astrophel,” after the lover in Sidney's sonnet sequence. Fulke Greville wrote a highly laudatory biography in 1610 that used several dubious stories to heighten Sidney's reputation. Throughout the rest of the seventeenth century, Sidney's influence was very strong both as a writer and as a personal role model. Material from Arcadia regularly appeared in Renaissance dramas, and the sonnet sequence became a literary fad.

Cherished by nostalgic Victorians in the nineteenth century, the idealized portrait of Sidney the gentleman-warrior, a fulfillment of mythic aspirations, continued to obscure his merits as a poet and theorist well into the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century critic Edmund Goose cautioned against inflating Sidney's merits as an author: “Sidney is most interesting as a radiating centre of sympathy, intelligence, brightness. …As a great author, surely, we must never venture to regard him.”

Apologie for Poetry In the eighteenth century, literary tastes swung away from the highly decorative prose style of Arcadia, although Sidney's poetry was still much admired. Most influential was his Apologie for Poetry, however. Samuel Johnson's “Preface to Shakespeare” repeats some of Sidney's points about the classical “unities.” Sidney's and Johnson's eras both shared a high regard for the literature of classical Greece and Rome, and one of their literary values was that dramas should stay consistent and unified in their setting, action, and the parallel timing between the events of the plot and the time it takes to perform the play. Sidney claimed that imaginative literature has no need to follow these restrictions, and Johnson agreed, using them to make a widely influential claim about Shakespeare's superiority to all other playwrights, including Sophocles.

Today, while Sidney is perhaps the least studied of all the major Renaissance writers (and all of them are dwarfed by the attention given to Shakespeare), much excellent scholarship has been undertaken to separate the actual life of the man from the legend created after his death. While a less distinguished, experienced, favored, and rational Sidney has emerged, he is for many a more authentic and compelling figure.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The sonnet sequence is a demanding genre. Sonnets themselves are highly compressed poems, each following a set structure in both the meter and the ordering of ideas in fourteen lines. Each sonnet needs to be substantially different from all the others, able to make sense on its own but tell part of a story when arranged in a sequence. Sonnet sequences are less like coherent novels than an emotional scrapbook of a passionate, usually unrequited love affair. Below are some other notable examples of sonnet sequences.

Song Book (c. 1374), a sonnet sequence by Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, who wrote his verse in Italian, is considered by many to be the father of the sonnet sequence. A large section of this collection amounts to a sonnet sequence concerning his love of a woman named Laura.

Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621), a sonnet sequence by Lady Mary Wroth. Wroth was a relative of Sidney's, and this sequence of forty-eight sonnets was the only significant set composed by a woman during the Renaissance.

The House of Life (1870), a sonnet sequence by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti said this set of 101 sonnets was about life, death, and the ideals of art and beauty, but many other readers see the poems biographically as representing Rossetti's complex emotions over the death of his wife and his unrequited passion for the wife of a friend.

Fungi from Yuggoth (1930–1947), a sonnet sequence by H. P. Lovecraft. This work contains unusual themes for a sonnet sequence: it is a tale of science fiction and horror. In it, the narrator discovers a book that allows him to travel to distant planets, where he meets unusual races of creatures.

Responses to Literature

  1. Where do you see sprezzatura—the “easy grace” of doing difficult things with apparent ease—reflected in the style and/or content of the Apologie for Poetry?
  2. Summarize the “plot” of the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the story's being as sketchy as it is? Do you think it is helpful, or unnecessary, to know the events of Sidney's courtship of Penelope Devereux as you read the sonnets?
  3. The characters in Arcadia, even the shepherds, speak in a convoluted, exaggerated, and high-flown literary style. How can we, or should we, take this at all seriously? Is Arcadia just too “out there” for modern tastes, or do you feel that its fantasies can make it more appealing today than it has been in a long time?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Boas, Frederick S. Sir Philip Sidney, RepresentativeElizabethan: His Life and Writings. London: Staples, 1955.

Buxton, John. Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Connell, Dorothy. Sir Philip Sidney: The Maker's Mind. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977.

Davis, Walter R. A Map of Arcadia: Sidney's Romance in Its Tradition. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Greville, Fulke. The Life of Sir Philip Sidney. Edited by Nowell Smith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1907.

Hager, Alan. Dazzling Images: The Masks of Sir Philip Sidney. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991.

Hamilton, A. C. Sir Philip Sidney: A Study of His Life and Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Kay, Dennis, ed. Sir Philip Sidney: An Anthology of Modern Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Van Dorsten, Jan, Dominic Baker-Smith, and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Sir Philip Sidney: 1586 and the Creation of a Legend. Leiden, the Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 1986.

Periodicals

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Sidney's Arcadia and the Mixed Mode.” Studies in Philology 70 (July 1973): 269–78.

Hamilton, A. C. “Sidney's Arcadia as Prose Fiction: Its Relation to Its Sources.” English Literary Renaissance 2 (Winter 1972): 29–60.

———. “Sidney's Astrophel and Stella as a Sonnet Sequence.” English Literary History 36 (March 1969): 59–87.

Web Sites

Sir Philip Sidney. Retrieved April 6, 2007, from http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/sidney.htm. Last updated on April 6, 2008.

Sir Philip Sidney's Apology for Poetry. Retrieved April 6, 2007, from http://www.wam.umd.edu/~mlhall/PhilipSidney.html. Last updated on February 24, 2007.

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