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Sidney, Robert (1563–1626) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

sidney’s brother sonnet mary

Although he wrote poetry and was intimately involved with the affairs of his age, Robert Sidney is better known for his relatives than for his own accomplishments. Brother to Philip Sidney,* the renowned writer and courtier, and Mary Sidney Herbert, the writer, patron, and editor, Sidney was also the father to Mary Wroth,* who wrote a prose romance, sonnet sequence, and play during the seventeenth century. In many ways, Sidney was the prototypical younger brother; overshadowed by his more glamorous siblings, he quietly set about improving the always shaky family fortunes during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean era.

Robert Sidney was born to Sir Henry and Lady Mary Sidney on 19 November 1563 at the family seat of Penshurst Place. Lady Mary, whose maiden name was Dudley, sister to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, for whom Robert was named, was well connected, and Sir Henry had been brought up with the young Prince Edward. When Elizabeth took the throne, Sir Henry was able to establish his service to the queen, first in Ireland and then in Wales, as the lord president of the Marches of Wales. Younger than his brother Philip by nine years, Robert was often compared to his brother—his father urged him in one letter to “imitate” his elder brother, who was “a rare Ornament of thys Age.” After the required education and Continental trip, Robert Sidney was more than willing to enter the courtier life that his brother had been exploring with mixed success.

In an attempt to improve his standing at court by stressing his connection with his famous Protestant uncle, Leicester, Robert Sidney went over to the Low Countries to fight in the wars. Not long after he arrived, his brother Philip received his famous fatal wound at the Battle of Zutphen in 1586. After his brother’s death, he assumed the role of head of the family (their father had died six months earlier) and was also given his brother’s position as governor of Flushing in the Low Countries. Unfortunately, neither position gave him much satisfaction. The Sidney family had always been strapped for money, and Robert Sidney had to maneuver to try to pay off the family’s debts. To do so required a visible and strong court presence to procure some preferment from the queen. Unfortunately, the situation at Flushing forced him to be on the Continent for long periods of time, away from the court, which could have provided him solvency and notice. The Low Country situation dragged on interminably, hindered by corruption, ineptitude, and greed, and Sidney’s position as colonial governor often forced him to make unpopular decisions.

Under Elizabeth, Robert Sidney was generally unnoticed since the Queen thought of Sidney as too immature and flighty for the responsibilities of court. As a colonial governor, he could be used but needed to remain out of sight. He returned to England more frequently during the end of her reign and was actually one of the small group of men who captured the rebellious earl of Essex at his house in London in 1600. Despite this service to the Queen, not until James came to the throne was Sidney released from service in Flushing and able to try to repair his fortunes at home. Eventually, under James, he was made Viscount Lisle in 1605 before becoming earl of Leicester in 1618.

One of the pleasures of his life was the steadiness of his domestic arrangements; Ben Jonson* rightly celebrated the joys of Penshurst as run by Sidney and his capable wife, Barbara. He had married Barbara Gamage in 1584 in a wedding that was conducted as quickly as possible to assure her hand. Despite the speed of what would seem to be an arranged nuptial, they were quite happy together and produced eleven children, six of whom grew into adulthood. Lady Barbara died in 1621; Sidney married once again to a younger woman, Sarah Smythe, shortly before his own death in 1626.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Sidney’s major literary contribution is a collection of sonnets and songs that was only recently published and was actually first attributed to him in the early 1970s, after it was sold by Sotheby’s to the British Library. This is thought by many to be his working copy of his poetry that was presumably written during the 1590s while he was at Zutphen. His level of experimentation in the structural components of the verse, although not as extreme as his brother’s, still produced an unfinished crown of sonnets and a variant on the Walsingham ballad, the traditional song between a lady and a pilgrim.

In terms of topic and treatment, Sidney remains fairly well entrenched within the Petrarchan sonnet craze of the 1590s. In the beginning of the sequence, through sonnet 20, the poetic persona speaks of his great love for a highly abstract Neoplatonic lady. After that point, the tone becomes progressively more bitter and melancholic as he describes his rejection in more graphic terms than he describes the lady: “Sick past all helpe or hope, or kills or dies;/While all the blood it [his love] sheds my heart doth bleed/And with my bowels I his cancers feed” (26.12–14). Throughout the sequence he uses images of the sea and martial endeavor to suggest the struggles of love; in addition, he toys with the Petrarchan paradox of concomitant absence and presence to describe his helplessness. This emphasis suggests a particularly biographical reading of the sonnets since Sidney himself was so upset about his continuing presence in Flushing and what that would mean for his success at court. Although some critics have tried to suggest that the “Lysa” and “Charys” that he refers to in the poem have some biographical standing, given the faddishness of sonnet writing, this may not be the case.

Robert Sidney’s collection of his letters, often ignored, proves intriguing. Written primarily to his secretary, Rowland Whyte, from Flushing, they provide a fascinating picture of an aspiring courtier during the turn of the century. Part of the problem with these letters is that we do not have a highly accurate and well-edited collection; the two collections of letters we do have, however, suggest all the ups and downs that were part and parcel for a man of Sidney’s standing. In addition, they provide a unique glimpse into the English viewpoint on the Low Country wars and occupation.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Aside from an initial flurry of interest when Sidney’s collection of poetry was found and published, there actually is very little critical mention of Robert Sidney. Most of it, like Waller’s, tends to find Sidney’s worth either in his influence on his daughter, Mary Wroth, or through his literary relationship with his brother, Philip Sidney. All three wrote sonnet and song miscellanies that show similar patterns of experimentation and phrasing as well as images and subject matter. For instance, all three wrote crowns of sonnets; however, Mary Wroth was the only one to complete hers. Robert Sidney’s oeuvre is considerably smaller and less developed than his brother’s and daughter’s and as a result gets considerably less attention.

As I mentioned, a potentially profitable area for exploration for Robert Sidney scholars would be some combination of the poetry and the letters. If the sonnet sequence is the expression of individual desire in a literary form, the letters of Sidney take these expressions of desire and ambition even further by revealing the machinations and despair behind the Elizabethan system of preferment. The additional revelations of the sheer ineptitude this system fostered when taken abroad provide a potent correction to notions of the fortunate Sidneys. Ironically, Robert Sidney’s position as a writer in the current canon reflects his position as a dutiful younger son in a family of achievers: no matter what he does, he is rarely recognized.

Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–1586) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION [next] [back] Sidgwick, Nevil Vincent

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