Sir Philip Sidney


Two years younger than Spenser, Philip Sidney (1554 - 1586) was a far more romantic figure, in life and death. His father Sir Henry Sidney was three times governor of Ireland, his father's sister Frances was the wife of the Earl of Sussex who was in charge of the royal household. The Sidney family, though, was only gentry, not as highly ranked as that of Philip's mother, Mary Dudley. Her brother Guilford Dudley had married the unfortunate 9-day queen Lady Jane Grey. Their father John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, was executed at the beginning of Mary Tudor's reign for having led resistance to her accession. For the Dudleys, and for many protestants, this was martyrdom. Philip Sidney was mainly honored in his youth because he was the only surviving descendant of John Dudley. Sidney's mother's brother Robert Dudley became the earl of Leicester in 1564, and he was the leader of the more militant protestant faction in national politics until his death in 1588.


When only fifteen, Philip Sidney was engaged to the daughter of Sir William Cecil, the most powerful man at court; in the end, Cecil decided that the Sidneys were too poor for her. She married the earl of Oxford instead, and this may help explain the violent quarrel that arose between him and Philip Sidney in 1579-80. Three years before he died, Philip Sidney married Frances Walsingham, the daughter of the powerful Sir Francis Walsingham who was allied to Leicester in promoting the protestant cause. After Sidney's death, his widow married Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex whose rebellion in 1601 led to his execution for treason.


Sidney's sister had their mother's name, Mary, and like the mother, she was an intelligent and lively person; the Dudley family was educated in the highest humanist tradition, the women like the men, so that his sister was Philip Sidney's main audience and partner in literary dialogue. In 1577, aged only fifteen, she married Henry Herbert, the earl of Pembroke, who was almost 40 years old, and went to live in his fine house at Wilton as Mary Herbert, countess of Pembroke. The medieval Sidney family home at Penshurst and Mary's new home at Wilton were both to become significant literary references. Mary Herbert (1561 - 1621) became a great literary patroness, encouraging many younger writers as well as publishing her brother's works and completing the English version of the Psalms which he had begun.


Philip Sidney was educated at Shrewsbury School, then went to Oxford for some three years from 1568. In May 1572, he set off for France and was welcomed at the French court in Paris. During the summer, all over France, tensions grew between the Catholics and Huguenots (protestants), culminating in the terrible Massacre of St Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1572, when many of Sidney's protestant acquaintances were among the thousands murdered. Sidney probably took refuge in the English Embassy under the protection of Sir Francis Walsingham (his future father-in-law) who was the English ambassador at that time.


Leaving Paris for ever, he went to Germany, on to Vienna, down to Venice, back to Vienna, and returned to England in June 1575. From these centres, Sidney made journeys as far south as Florence, and as far east as Cracow in Poland; he returned via Prague, Dresden, Frankfurt and Cologne. During his journey, he met a number of remarkable protestant humanists from France, with whom he maintained relations later and whose courage in the face of violent persecution must have impressed him deeply. He probably also obtained a copy of Sannazaro's Arcadia while he was in Venice, illustrated with woodcuts, and this book seems to have suggested to Spenser the format of the Shepheardes Calendar, as well as giving the title and structure of Sidney's own Arcadia.


One month after his return, in July 1575, Philip was present when his uncle Leicester entertained the Queen at Kenilworth Castle; part of the shows presented during those days were scripted by George Gascoigne in a rather rustic style. Then he had to wait until 1577 before the Queen sent him on an official mission to Europe to visit the new Emperor and offer condolences on the death of his father, also to meet Protestant princes to get information on the possibility of a league against the Catholic powers in the south. During this journey, in Prague, Sidney seems to have met the English Jesuit priest Edmund Campion to discuss religious questions. On the way back to England, he visited William of Orange, who was the leader of the revolt against Spain in the Netherlands. The Protestant leader was very impressed by Sidney and even hoped to see him marry his daughter, something that Elizabeth would never have allowed. For Sidney, this was one of the happiest times in his whole life.


In 1577 Gascoigne suddenly died, and in the years that followed Sidney quite often composed verses and pageants for his family, as well as for Leicester, and began to perform at court tournaments. In November 1577 the Queen's Accession Day (the anniversary of her becoming Queen) was celebrated by a tournament at which Sidney rode for the first time. He appeared dressed as Philisides the shepherd and spoke verses written in a pastoral mode, in praise of his beloved Mira and of the Queen. This name is used in some of the poems in the Arcadia.  More important, when Elizabeth visited Leicester's home in Wanstead, Essex, in May 1578, she was entertained in the garden by a pastoral play or masque, The Lady of May, written by Sidney and acted by boy actors from the Chapel Royal with the famous comedian Richard Tarlton. The Queen is asked to judge between two suitors who are wooing the pastoral May Queen, the mild shepherd Espilus and the violent forester Therion. This play combines comic horseplay, artistic song, and pastoral elements in a quite new way; Espilus perhaps represents Leicester and his policies at a time when he had many rivals for the Queen's ear.


In 1579, Elizabeth seemed to be ready to marry the French dauphin, the Duke of Alencon, who came to London himself in the summer to woo her. The Protestant faction, led by Leicester and Walsing­ham, were horrified; but Elizabeth did not like criticism. A writer, John Stubbs, and his publisher had their right hands cut off for producing a book in which Alencon was attacked. Sidney also wrote a letter of protest to the Queen, for which he was not punished. A little later, though, he was involved in a public dispute with the earl of Oxford over the use of a tennis court. Oxford was a vicious man, as well as the highest Earl in England, and Sidney had a fierce temper combined with a deep sense of social inferiority. In addition, they were on opposite sides over the French marriage. Sidney withdrew from court and went to stay at Wilton House with his sister, who was pregnant. During the summer of 1580, and probably until at least 1581, Sidney worked on the first version of his Arcadia, the "Old" Arcadia, the first pastoral prose romance in English, with his sister and her companions as his intended audience.

In the early 1580s the Queen was under increasing pressure to help the Protestants in the Netherlands in their fight against the Spanish, and she remained determined to keep England out of such an involvement as much as possible. In 1585 Sidney was sent to the Low Countries and became governor of the small town of Zutphen, a very symbolic role that he soon realized was meant to remain symbolic. Perhaps out of a sense of frustration, he took risks in the very limited skirmishes with the Spanish that sometimes happened. One September morning in 1586, he went out riding without having his legs properly armed. Riding through a fog, his people suddenly found themselves close to a group of Spanish soldiers. There was some shooting and Sidney received a bullet in the thigh. Sidney's childhood friend and admirer, Fulke Greville, later wrote a heroic account of how the wounded Sidney gave up his water bottle to a common soldier he saw dying at the roadside, with the words, "His need is greater than mine," but Greville was not present at the scene. The wound itself was not fatal, but it became infected and after 26 days Sidney died. His death was in fact a rather inglorious affair, a stupid accident, and his friends felt the need to glorify it in order to urge the Queen to intervene in the Netherlands.


Sidney's body was brought back to London and solemnly buried, several months later, in St Paul's Cathedral. The memory of Sidney was promoted by the Protestant party for their own pan-European cause, and by writers who saw the value of what he had done as a writer and patron of letters. His sister did much to ensure his future reputation, by her work in publishing accurate editions of almost all Sidney's literary writings, continuing and completing his translation of the Psalms, and imitating his patronage of poorer writers at a time when the literary enterprise was beginning to take on some of its modern aspects.

The Old Arcadia


The plot of the first version of the Arcadia is a fantastic mixture of pastoral and moralistic elements; central to it is the question of individual responsibility in society. Duke Basileus, with his wife Gynecia and their two daughters Pamela and Philoclea flee a threatening oracle and hide in a pastoral village. Two cousins, Pyrocles and Musidorus, from another country, are in Arcadia. Pyrocles happens to see a portrait of Philoclea and falls in love. He goes to the village disguised as a girl, Cleophila. His cousin follows, sees and falls in love with Pamela, and enters the village disguised as a shepherd, Dorus.


The cross-dressing leads to immense complications, since Gynecia senses that Cleophila must be a man and falls in love with him, while her husband does not have her insight and also falls in love with "her". Finally, Musidorus elopes with Pamela. He is about to be overcome with passion and rape her in her sleep when a band of ruffians captures them. Cleophila meanwhile has arranged for the Duke and his wife to come to a dark cave, each expecting to find "her" there alone. By clever arranging, they make love to each other, the Duke convinced that his partner is the young woman he desires, but Gynecia has recognized his voice.  In the morning she reveals the truth to him; he drinks a "love potion" she had brought and drops dead. She surrenders to the regent, who happens to arrive.


Meanwhile, Cleophila has become Pyrocles again and is quite shamelessly making love with the amorous Philoclea. They are detected and captured. Pamela and Musidorus are brought back as prisoners. The king of Macedonia arrives and the entire case is entrusted to him. He sentences Gynecia and the two young men to death. It is suddenly discovered that one of them is his son. He disowns him and insists on the law. Suddenly Basileus wakes up, he was not dead, and there is a happy ending with the marriage of the lovers.


The Defence of Poesy


His Defence of Poesy (printed in 1595 with the title An Apology for Poetry) was written rapidly, probably in 1582. It may partly have been designed to support the growing idea that he should marry Frances Walsingham, whose father would be impressed by such a serious piece of writing. In addition, Sidney still had no position in court, no title, but was known to be a poet; he therefore sets out to affirm the high value of this activity, and the nobility of the title of poet that Gosson and others had attacked in the name of Christianity. He therefore starts by referring to the ancient roles of the poet:


Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet. . . so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge.


One of Sidney's main ideas is that the lives created (or re-created) by the literary author make such a deep impression on the readers that they find themselves impelled to try to live like the characters they read about. This teaching is done by example, not by precept, and here Sidney is confronted with a problem. How is it that people can create imaginary characters far more virtuous than the ordinary run of mortals in real life? He has to suggest that the poet is inspired from above.


Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in the word mimesis--that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture--with this end, to teach and delight.


Sidney goes on to propose various categories of poet, the religious first, with David's Psalms as the highest example; then philosophical and historical poems where the subject-matter is not in itself poetical although the prosody is verse. The third group covers those whom he terms "right poets":


. . . they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be; but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.


The other very significant section of the Defence comes when Sidney later turns to the poor state of poetry in England. He offers an interesting evaluation, focussing on Chaucer, Surrey, and Wyatt as notable poets in English. He concludes by demanding a new standard of truth in the love lyric:


...many of such writings as come under the banner of unresistible love, if I were a mistress, would never persuade me they were in love: so coldly they apply fiery speeches, as men that had rather read lovers' writings (...) than that in truth they feel those passions, which easily (as I think) may be bewrayed by that same forcibleness or energia (as the Greeks call it) of the writer.



Astrophel and Stella


The sequence contains 108 sonnets and 11 songs and has a clear underlying narrative structure, unlike any other English cycle. The male speaker, who never names himself, offers an analysis of his very one-sided passion for Stella in a step-by-step series of poems that culminate in the Second Song placed after sonnet 72. Stella is for a long time unaware of his feelings, and once she knows she is cautious in her responses since she is already married. Finally she seems to have accepted her admirer's devotion, but only on condition that his love remain platonic and virtuous. In the Second Song, however, he finds her asleep in a chair and kisses her without permission. This makes him very happy, and Stella very angry. The rest of the sequence shows how their relationship breaks down into hostile indifference on Stella's part, and despair for the unreasoning male lover.


The New Arcadia


In 1582, Sidney married Walsingham's daughter Frances for reasons that almost certainly had little to do with passionate desire. The Sidney family was almost completely ruined by the expenses incurred by Sir Philip's father in the Queen's service in Ireland. During the years before his marriage, Sidney began to rewrite the Arcadia. The fundamental plot remains, but it is now given a new beginning and related in a much more serious, almost tragic, tone. The two young princes arrive near Arcadia after nearly dying in a shipwreck. The shepherds Klaius and Strephon guide Musidorus to the home of Kalandar, a wise and good man, who tells him of the retreat of Basileus to the rural hideout with his much younger wife Gynecia and their two lovely daughters, showing him their portraits with the result found in the earlier version.

The first Arcadia had many comic and ironic features; these are almost entirely absent from the revised version. By contrast, Sidney introduces far more military conflict, and stresses the dangers of martial heroism by bringing into the story so much armed conflict that it seems impossible for the original ending to be kept. Just how Sidney planned to complete the work is unknown, for in the middle of the third Book it breaks off in mid-sentence. Life took over from literature for Sidney.

The style is if anything more mannered than before, as can be seen from this description of Arcadia:



There were hills which garnished their proud heights with stately trees; humble valleys whose base estate seemed comforted with refreshing of silver rivers; meadows enamelled with all sorts of eye-pleasing flowers; thickets, which, being lined with most pleasant shade, were witnessed so to by the cheerful deposition of many well-tuned birds; each pasture stored with sheep feeding with sober security, while the pretty lambs with bleating oratory craved the dams' comfort; here a shepherd's boy piping as though he should never be old; there a young shepherdess knitting and withal singing, and it seemed that her voice comforted her hands to work and her hands kept time to her voice's music.


More characteristic of the tone and material of the new Arcadia, though, is the episode from the tenth chapter of the Second Book, the story of the Paphlagonian king, which gave Shakespeare much of the material for his revision of the story of King Lear:


". . . I was carried by a bastard son of mine (if at least I be bound to believe the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, this son undeserving destruction."

(. . .)

". . . drunk in my affection to that unlawful and unnatural son of mine I suffered myself so to be governed by him that all favours and punishments passed by him, all offices, and places of importance, distributed to his favourites; so that ere I was aware, I had left myself nothing but the name of a King: which he shortly weary of too, with many indignities threw me out of my seat, and put out my eyes; and then (proud in his tyranny) let me go, neither imprisoning nor killing me, but rather delighting to make me feel my misery."


The main interest of this episode is certainly the way it seems to have impressed Shakespeare, providing much of the horror at human cruelty that marks King Lear (not only the Gloucester plot, but also the fundamental theme of the unnatural treatment of fathers by their children and the experience of misery) and even something of the way Prospero was treated by his brother Antonio before the start of The Tempest.

Sidney's revision of Arcadia remained unfinished and was published as a fragment in 1590. His sister seems, though, to have felt that this was not satisfactory. She took the final parts of the earlier version, had a writer compose a linking passage, and in 1593 published a "complete" Arcadia that remained very popular until the 18th century. The near-rape of Pamela has been removed, Pyrocles and Philoclea do not have sexual relations before marriage. The heroine of the first recognized modern novel, Richardson's Pamela (1740), may perhaps have received her name from Sidney's work.