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Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–1586) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

queen sidney’s arcadia philip’s

Sidney’s life and accomplishments were the stuff of myth and legend even in his own time, and often it is difficult to separate them. He was born at Penshurst, Kent, on 30 November, the eldest son of two distinguished families, of Henry Sidney and Mary Dudley Sidney. His father’s family had, for several generations, been personal servants to the kings of England, and Henry Sidney had been elevated by the French king to a gentleman ordinary, “considerans com-bien est grande la maison de Sydenay en Angleterre.” The Dudleys were nobility, and since childhood Mary Dudley had been a friend and companion of Princess Elizabeth and was destined to spend her life as waiting lady to the queen. Such ancestry is good material for myth. But events contributed, too. The recent history of the Dudley family was stained by treason: Philip’s great-grandfather was executed by Henry VIII for extortion; in 1553, his mother had helped his grandfather, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, in his short-lived plot to put Philip’s uncle Guilford and Lady Jane Grey on the throne, resulting in his grandfather’s execution for treason that year and Guilford’s execution the year Philip was born. The act to seize the throne from Mary Tudor was a Protestant act that failed; perhaps in reparation, the Sidneys named their son for Catholic King Philip of Spain and of England and made King Philip and the widowed duchess of Northumberland his godparents. What may have been a politic choice at the time, however, turned out to be ironic through most of Philip’s life, since the king of Spain became his arch political and religious enemy, and he lost his life fighting against Philip’s troops when they invaded the Low Countries.

Moreover, the family was, from the start of Philip’s life, victimized by poverty. The thirteenth-century castle of Penshurst had been given to Philip’s grandfather, Sir William Sidney, by Edward VI in 1552, and Philip’s father never had the financial means to support his estate adequately. Both of Philip’s parents spent their lives in service to Elizabeth I: Sir Henry was named lord deputy governor of Ireland three times and was also lord president of the Marches of Wales—service that was costly to perform and that kept him from tending his southern lands; once, when the queen awarded him a barony, he declined because he could not afford to maintain the title. Lady Mary attended the queen during the most serious epidemic of her reign, the smallpox outbreak in 1572, and while the queen escaped unharmed, Lady Mary’s face was disfigured for life and, although she was kept at court, the queen declined to advance her because of her appearance. Philip Sidney, who also suffered from minor facial scars, probably based the disfigured Parthenia in theArcadiaon his mother, thus commenting on, and also memorializing, her suffering.

Despite such long shadows at the time of his birth, Philip was given the finest available humanist education, drawing on the recent legacy of John Colet, William Lily, Thomas More,Roger Ascham, and Thomas Wilson. He received his first training at Penshurst; in September 1564, he entered grammar school at Shrewsbury, thirty miles from Sir Henry’s headquarters in Ludlow, where he studied under Thomas Ashton, a Calvinist who taught from Calvin’s Bible but who was reputed to be one of the country’s best schoolmasters; in 1568 he began three years at Christ Church, Oxford, where, although with his family’s movements he was not always in attendance, he began, among other things, a translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric . Then, from 1572 to 1575 he completed the customary humanist trivium of training by going on a grand tour among the countries on the Continent, studying most frequently national histories and governments. Extensive subsequent correspondence shows he was frequently tutored by Hubert Languet, a distinguished graduate of Padua who, converted to Protestantism by Melanchthon, represented the elector of Saxony at Paris, Vienna, and Prague. Philip arrived at Paris in June 1572 and stayed with Languet’s friend, Sir Francis Walsingham, who would later be Elizabeth I’s lord treasurer, Philip’s father-in-law, and, following his death, the man who would bankrupt himself to give Sidney the funeral of state he deserved. There he probably met the dowager Catherine de’ Medici, the duke of Anjou (and later Henri III); the duke of Alençon (whose proposed marriage to Elizabeth I he would later challenge); Phillippe du Plessis Mornay, the philosopher and theologian whose daughter would be his godchild (in London in 1578) and whose Truth of Religion he would begin to translate as one of his last literary tasks; and Peter Ramus, the rhetorician whose sense of style as strings of binaries Sidney would use occasionally in his sonnet sequence, poetic treatise, and novel, but always in subordination to the classical Aristotelian rhetoric Ramus opposed. In Paris, too, Sidney witnessed the forced marriage of Henry of Navarre in August 1572 and the subsequent slaughter on St. Bartholomew’s Day—the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre—which took the life of the Huguenot leader Admiral de Coligny and which served as the source for the carnage described as the Helot rebellion in Arcadia I and the various tortures and bloodshed in New Arcadia II .

Sidney fled Paris as quickly as he could following the Catholic uprising, visiting Europe’s finest humanist scholars and printers, Henri Estienne in Heidelberg and Johan Strum in Strasbourg. He visited Vienna briefly, staying once more with Languet, and then traveled through Italy with a companion whom Edmund Spenser* would honor, Lodowick Bryskett. In Venice, he commissioned Veronese to paint his portrait (now lost) and returned home by way of Vienna and Poland.

For the next three years, from 1576 through 1579, Sidney sought unsuccessfully to win a significant position at court. He had every reason, given his ancestry, parentage, and education, to expect something from the queen, but she gave him only a minor office, that of cupbearer, in 1576. Still, he is reported— whether fact or partly myth is now difficult to determine—to be the very perfection of courtliness and honor, known for his skill at horsemanship and in tournaments and for his skill at writing such royal entertainments as The Lady of May . Contemporaries again and again credit him with sprezzatura —talents and artful behavior executed with apparent ease and naturalness, a term coined and urged at court by Castiglione.* He is now often compared with Hamlet, based on Ophelia’s description of him as the glass of fashion and the mold of form; and it is certainly the case that he attracted the earl of Essex in the summer of 1576 when he accompanied the earl to Ireland to visit Sir Henry, and Essex began to arrange Philip’s marriage to his eleven-year-old daughter Penelope. Essex died, however, before the marriage contract was completed, and Penelope Devereux grew up to marry Robert Lord Rich; whether this loss inspired Sidney’s sonnet sequence or he simply found it a convenient fictional frame is now also beyond the realm of certainty.

In December 1576, Elizabeth I sent Sidney as head of an embassy to the Holy Roman Empire to express her sympathies for the recent death of Maximilian and to congratulate his son Rudolph on his succession, by election, to the imperial throne; she added the additional duty of paying similar respects to Louis, newly elected to head the Palatinate upon his father’s death; and finally, by a late dispatch, she approved his uncle’s request to stand in as godfather to the new daughter of William of Orange. The journey was quite possibly the turning point of his life: while the queen was keeping him busy with minor tasks, he was learning firsthand the fervor of the Protestant League in Europe and was extending his popularity abroad—both because European leaders thought him a more powerful representative for the queen than he was and because he was personally so charming and intellectually so accomplished. Such popularity only soured him at home, increasing his frustrations over lack of advancement at Whitehall. His lack of progress can be seen in the angry defense of his uncle Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester; in his increasing endorsement of the Protestant League (which the queen saw as a rival center of power); in his agreement to write, on behalf of the liberal Puritan wing of the Privy Council, a letter to the queen opposing her projected marriage to Anjou; and, finally, in a quarrel with the earl of Oxford during a tennis match in 1579. When he refused to apologize, the queen rebuked him, noting that a gentleman was always beholden to an earl. As a direct consequence, he left the court—voluntarily, I think, although myth has it at the sentence of the queen—for his sister Mary’s house at Wilton.

For the next five years—from 1580 to 1585—Sidney and his father continued their pleas with the queen for more financial support and for better positions in service to the state, and for the next five years she continued either to ignore or to deny them. I think this is partly because she was so accustomed to Sir Henry’s and Lady Mary’s devoted service at such little cost that she saw no reason to reward them with more; I think it is also because Philip’s growing popularity at home—where in 1583 Walsingham gave him his daughter—and abroad was potentially threatening: she was, after all, a single monarch who kept her nearly absolute authority by playing one faction against another in her court so that no one faction (nor any single family) would be too strong but would instead remain dependent on her. Nevertheless, these five years were, as matters turned out, Sidney’s best years. He was not only happily married but in 1583 knighted when his friend Prince Casimir (not the queen) asked him to stand proxy when he was installed as a knight of the Order of the Garter at Windsor.

Moreover, the country house and great park at Wilton were sufficiently pastoral and idyllic to give Sidney ample time to read, meditate, and write. He had already set out his principles in his Defense of Poesie in 1579, and at Wilton he put them into practice with the Arcadia , a great-house romance that he wrote for his sister and, I think, for long winter evenings when it was the custom of nobility to sit about the fire and read aloud the various parts of long works of fiction. At Wilton he wrote Certaine Sonnets , testing quantitative meter, and the Petrarchan sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella , both initially composed in 1581–82. In 1583 he began a lengthy revision of the Arcadia , transforming it into a serious analysis of politics and governance, using this as a substitution for the court life he now saw beyond his grasp. Around 1584 he began translating the Psalms with his sister, exploiting his interest in Calvinist thought, and beginning his incomplete translation of Du Plessis Mornay’s treatise on The Truth of the Christian Religion . Both of these religious works, it has been argued, remained unfinished because he was called to war in the Low Countries, but I think it is likelier that the portions of Mornay that he completed—the parts dealing with the proofs of the existence of God and on the immortality of the soul—were the only parts that interested him: philosophy rather than straight theology of the sort that also informs the most significant speeches in the New  Arcadia . A strong Protestant at court, fiery and partisan, according to observers, I think Sidney turned more reflective during the years at Wilton.

Still, his yearning for adventure and travel did not desert him entirely, and in September 1584 he secretly signed on with Sir Francis Drake to explore the New World. The queen interrupted his plans and appointed him governor of Flushing. He arrived at his new post in November, preceding his uncle, the earl of Leicester. From the outset, he was surprised and concerned with the decayed state of the English garrisons. The troops were largely volunteers and mercenaries—unwanted rogues who had not received pay because of graft and corruption in the armed forces and who managed to live by pillaging the countryside. Sidney urged Leicester to arrive, take command, and bring order to the English soldiers, but when he came he, too, began squandering the queen’s money, keeping much of it for himself. When the leaders of the Low Countries offered Leicester the position of governor-general—disobeying his queen by becoming a foreign ruler himself—Sidney distanced himself by fighting battles alongside his own soldiers. In addition to the garrison at Flushing and a company of horse he had recruited from England, he took command of a regiment from Zeeland. He established his military leadership in a successful assault on Spanish troops at Axel; the antiquarian John Stow records that Sidney addressed his men before the battle with such stirring words that they chose to die in service to their country rather than to live by avoiding battle. In the battle, not one English soldier was killed. One of them, George Whetstone, noted that Sidney was a special favorer of the common soldier.

On 22 September 1586, Sidney again led his troops in battle against the Spanish at Zutphen, attempting to block a major supply route. The skirmish— thought to be a minor one—was crucial strategically, but in the course of fighting he was wounded in the thigh, fell from his horse, and was taken off the field to receive medical care at Arnheim. Initially, he improved, but then gangrene set in, and on 17 October he died, at the age of thirty-one. He was not buried, however, until 16 February 1587, in a lavish public ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. The Dutch had offered to bury him in their own country, but Walsingham, who insisted on the ceremony, could not raise the money until early the following year, and the queen refused to contribute to the costs of the funeral.

Sidney’s first biographer, Fulke Greville, a classmate at Shrewsbury School, reported that Sidney took off his thigh-armor to give to a soldier who had none and thus exposed himself to the fatal wound through his own personal sacrifice. He was also asked for water by a dying soldier and offered his own canteen in a gesture that combined battleground companionship with noblesse oblige. It now seems reasonably clear that the first is wholly myth; Sidney was much too professional and skilled a soldier to fight without armor; the second, while it may be factual, is thus open to a range of interpretation. His youthful death on a foreign battlefield, defending Protestantism as much as England, was also the stuff of myth and legend—and Greville, who was attempting to rewrite Sidney’s life as an educational sermon, may have embroidered it. What is factually beyond dispute, however, is that he became, in the 1590s, the most influential poet in England, and his uniquely popular novel Arcadia remaineda best-seller in England for nearly a century and a half, surpassing the sales of Spenser’s epic and even of Shakespeare’s* plays.


Sidney lived in a time when poetry circulated among friends and court circles in manuscript, and none of his works were published until the 1590s, some time after his death. The writer Thomas Nashe* was employed to write a preface supporting Astrophil and Stella , and an unauthorized edition of the Defense of Poetrie caused Sidney’s sister, the countess of Pembroke,* to publish her more authentic text. Not until 1598, however, did she publish all of Sidney’s main works in a folio collection as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia . I have already remarked that the sonnet sequence created a literary fashion throughout the 1590s, but Arcadia , too, unfinished in its revised form, was added to by others. In 1616 William Alexander attempted to round out Book III; his text was incorporated in all editions beginning in 1621. Later printings also included Richard Beling’s additions as Book VI and James Johnstoun’s to Book III. The work was also popular abroad, with two French translations appearing in 1624 and 1625; a German translation in 1629 augmented in 1638; and a Dutch edition that went through three different printings beginning in 1639. In the century following Sidney’s death, the Defense of Poetrie was translated into German and Dutch, and Astrophil and Stella into Italian. Anna Weamys published a “continuation” in which she completed some of the subplots in the Arcadia and concluded with the death of Philisides, Sidney’s own nominal counterpart. Sidney’s sister completed their translation of the Psalmes , and in 1587 Arthur Golding completed and published Sidney’s partial translation of de Mornay.

Acclaim was not universal. Ben Jonson* scoffed at Sidney’s style in Every Man Out of His Humor and Timber , and, after it was said that Charles I read Pamela’s prayer from the Arcadia just before his execution, Milton scoffed at the king’s “impiety.” The reputation of the Arcadia suffered under the neoclassical interests of the eighteenth century, but the Defense of Poetrie continued to have influence. The general revival began in the early nineteenth century with Thomas Zouch’s Memoir of Sir Philip Sidney , followed in 1862 with H. R. Fox Bourne’s biographical works based on extant primary documents. Editions of the Defense edited by Albert Cook and Evelyn Shuckburgh began appearing in the 1880s and 1890s, and in 1909 Bertram Dobell announced his discovery of the Old Arcadia , leading to R. W. Zandvoort’s comparison of the two versions in 1929. Not until the late 1950s, however, did Sidney begin to attain the prominence he now enjoys, as one of the three major writers of the sixteenth century. This came about partly because of the Oxford edition of Sidney’s Works and partly because two major schools of literary study—the new criticism and the new historicism—both saw in Sidney’s texts the careful artistic ability and the cultural pressures that for them were central to any important literary achievement. Recent studies comparing Sidney to Spenser, often to Sidney’s advantage, now seem to guarantee his significant position for the foreseeable future.

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