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MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

poetry sidney poet arcadia

Renewed activity concerning Sidney’s work in the past thirty years has assured his reputation as the most important English writer of the sixteenth century since Thomas More. Geoffrey Shepherd has noted that the statements in his Defense of Poesie “are moments of European self-consciousness,” recovering for English poetics the best classical and Continental thought. His sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella , making him the English Petrarch, imported into England the cycle initiated by Petrarch’s Rime andinitiated a full decade of imitations, through the 1590s, by all the significant English poets, including Daniel,* Drayton, Spenser, and Shakespeare. C. S. Lewis sees the Arcadia as a touchstone that “gathers up what a whole generation wanted to say,” and, perhaps nearer the mark, Virginia Woolf saw the work “as in some luminous globe, all the seeds of English fiction” lying latent within it. It was not replaced in the history of the English novel until Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), which takes its themes and the name of its protagonist from the Arcadia .

The extraordinary strength and richness of Sidney’s work derive from many sources. He was a thoughtful reader of the ancients—of Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero; of Ovid, Horace, Vergil, Xenophon, Plutarch, and Seneca. He knew the Bible and the commentary of Buchanan and others. He knew the older romance of Heliodorus and the new ones of Sannazaro and Montemayor as well as the French Amadis de Gaul . His critical theory absorbed antiquity alongside Scaliger and Landino. He knew Continental poetry, especially revering Petrarch. His understanding of these works, especially his memory of them, is vivid and usually infallible in accuracy and understanding, but his contemplative mind had the ability to synthesize them, to make writers of the past and present the silent collaborators of his own work. Yet, as absorbed as he was in the tradition of the past and the currents of his time, he kept his distance, too: flashes of wit are everywhere. His most serious and explicit statement of poetics begins with a parody of Stephen Gosson’s respect of horsemanship and the military; it ends with a joke on the reader who is foolish enough to ignore his or her own epitaph. Finally, his mind is restless, and his approach experimental: he is always searching to make old forms and ideas newly formed and newly alive; his sonnet sequence, following the general lines laid down by Petrarch, nevertheless makes nearly every sonnet different in tone or form, with the customary caesura of sound and thought moving to various positions throughout what had been a staid, fixed sonnet form.

His Defense of Poesie remains the best in the English language, the wellspring of the work of those to follow, such as Jonson, Shelley, and Eliot. Taking poetry to mean any creative literary act, Sidney sees three kinds: religious (such as David, Orpheus, or Homer in his “Hymns”), philosophical (such as Lucretius, Vergil, or Lucan), and “right poets,” those who combine Platonic idealization with Aristotelian mimesis by understanding poetry as an act of imitation so as to teach virtuous behavior through examples but to teach ideal behavior by inventing ideal exemplars that are, nevertheless, recognizably human. To do this, the poet needs to rummage through the zodiac of his own wit, his imaginary world where many Cyruses lead to an ideal concept of Cyrus, far transcending and modifying the historical Cyrus and making such Cyruses of his readers. At the same time that poets begin with history but then leave it behind for an improved, imaginary version, they do not become mere philosophers, lost in abstractions: to do so, he says, alluding to a classical example, so fixes the poet’s eyes on the stars that the same poet will lose his earthly bearing and fall into a ditch. Rather, poetry is anchored in a concrete image. Such a practice—teaching virtuous behavior—has religious overtones and is meant to for Sidney: he sees the poet as a second God creating a second nature that, like God’s first nature, is crowded with poetic lessons but, with the poet, more forceful through metaphor, rhetoric, and meter or style and thus more memorable and forceful. This key idea—the representative ideal—is the “ idea [of a perfect man] which is manifest, by delivering [him] forth in such excellency as [the poet] had imagined him”—the objective correlative that is the foreconceit, or starting-place, of all poetry. But Sidney does not see such a high calling, if an unelected vocation for himself, as any easy task: man’s “infected will,” he remarks, keeps us from realizing the best we can contemplate, the results of our “erected wit.” Thus, the poet is always contending in a battle of wills with fallen human nature, and it is the glory of poetry that, like the inspired Word of God, it, too, can inspire and elevate mankind. It does so not merely by teaching and inspiring but by guaranteeing its worth in daily human actions. It does so through delight as well as instruction. Poetry has had no more articulate champion.

Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (or star-lover and star ) shows both the possibility and danger of such a poetics. To love a distant star, as Astrophil does— that is, to yearn for the impossible, the general state of the Petrarchan lover— is absurd; rather, Astrophil must take sterner measure of himself, just as Sidney the poet must. This poetics is repeated in the first sonnet of the sequence: he catalogs the conventional forms of poetry to find all of them insufficient to the occasion and determines, at the close of the poem, the true source of poetry: “‘Fool,’ said my muse to me, ‘look in thy heart and write.‘” Astrophil’s heart is full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, realized by Sidney in an unmatched number of experiments in poetical form and perspective. All are partial, and therefore all are inadequate. In the end, Astrophil has so imprisoned his idea of Stella in his own series of shortsighted observations that he loses her, but this testing of the hope of humanity opposed to its achievement underscores Sidney’s belief that an ideal must be carefully constructed, by poet and reader alike. It must remain ideal and yet, somehow, be sufficiently mimetic to be exemplary and useful. Wit, he says elsewhere, must always be exercised—and by exercise, he means the exercise of thought (look in thy heart) and the exercise of action (and write).

If Astrophil and Stella is for Sidney an example of how poetry can instruct daily living, then his great prose romance, England’s first novel, the Arcadia , illustrates how daily living impinges on poetry and reshapes it. Taking his view of a full poetic world from Heliodorus, whose tangled threads of several plots played private life against public and love alongside governance, Sidney argues that any leadership—such as that of Basilius or Pyrocles and Musidorus—must take into account private desire and public citizenship. All three characters suffer from imbalance, and their partial views again and again erupt into dialectic, into debates of words and actions about the right and proper courses of life. Behind all the events and speeches lie Aristotle’s two great virtues—magnanimity of soul and justice for society. They are combined, in the end, in the great trial scene of Book V, when Euarchus fails to allow exceptions to case law, to precedent, and thus would condemn to death his own son and his nephew for crimes that did not, in fact, exist. The young men are saved when Basilius arises from the dead—on the face of it, wondrous and miraculous. Sidney’s point is that poetry (like religion) must always have room for the wondrous and miraculous, as strict law never does. Put in legal terms, justice must always make allowance for mercy, and precedent for extenuating circumstances. What might seem both poetic in its happy ending and philosophic in its debate of love and justice as necessarily both private and public concerns was also politically pointed in Sidney’s time: he used Arcadia , in part, to mount an argument against common-law courts revered by Tudor governments in favor of chancery courts, which took each case on its own terms, as a poet would.

This intervention into political affairs is part of the design of Arcadia , and when Sidney began an exhaustive revision of the work in 1583, he concentrated on matters of governments and politics in far more complicated ways. What is clear is that he had found a new way to enter into the queen’s service—by commenting on her rule and her society if he was otherwise not to be a participant in it. It was not merely compensatory; it was his unelected vocation, the task he was born to. What is so clear in what is now called the New Arcadia , however, had been true before. The Defense of Poesie and Astrophil and Stella also teach by showing how we must govern human behavior by governing ourselves. The difference is that they are essentially private works where the poet addresses the reader. The Arcadia , on the other hand, was designed not merely to instruct the individual but to instruct society as well. The ancient exemplars for Sidney’s Arcadia are Aristotle (for its ideas on politics and ethics) and Cicero (for its beliefs in, and techniques of, persuasive rhetoric). Both, like Sidney, were essentially public men. Whether or not Elizabeth I ever admitted Sidney to the inner circles of her court, he nevertheless captured the attention of both the queen and her people through his writing.

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