Sir Philip Sidney (November 30, 1554 – October 17, 1586) was one of the most prominent poets of the Elizabethan era. Like his close friend Edmund Spenser, Sidney helped to popularize Italian poetic forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, making them some of the most popular and enduring forms in English poetry. Much of Sidney's literary fame also rests on his essay The Defence of Poesie, which is now considered one of the most important early works of literary criticism to be found in the English language. His "defence" emphasized the ennobling power of art to cause the observer to apply knowledge to living a better life. Sidney did not live long enough—nor, with his parallel careers as a courtier and soldier, did he have time enough—to ever write a truly extensive body of work comparable with that of Spenser or Shakespeare. Still, he is indisputably one of the great early Elizabethans, and one of the first poets of what would become the English Renaissance.
Born at Penshurst, Kent, Sidney was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney and Lady Mary Dudley. His younger sister, Mary Sidney, married Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, and was important as a translator and as a patron of poetry; Sidney dedicated his longest work, the Arcadia, to her, and she would be a stabilizing influence all of Sidney's life.
Sidney was educated at Shrewsbury School and Christ Church College, Oxford. He was much traveled and highly learned. In 1572, he traveled to France as part of the embassy to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth I and the Duc D'Alencon. He spent the next several years in Europe, moving through Germany, Italy, Poland, and Austria. On these travels, he met a number of prominent European intellectuals and politicians.
Returning to England in 1575, Sidney met Penelope Devereux, the future Penelope Blount; though much younger, she would become the inspiration of his famous sonnet sequence of the 1580s, Astrophil and Stella. Her father the Earl of Essex, is said to have planned to marry his daughter to Sidney; however, the Earl died in 1576 before he could complete the arrangements. In England, Sidney occupied himself with politics and art. He defended his father's administration of Ireland in a lengthy document. He also quarreled with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. In the aftermath of this episode, Sidney challenged de Vere to a duel, which Elizabeth forbade; he then wrote the queen a lengthy letter detailing the foolishness of de Vere. Characteristically, Elizabeth bristled at Sidney's presumption, and he was rather swiftly retired from court.
Having left the court in relative shame, Sidney would go on to achieve the artistic accomplishments that would ultimately cement his lasting fame. During his absence from the court he wrote the Arcadia and, probably, The Defence of Poesie. Somewhat earlier, he had met Edmund Spenser, who dedicated the Shepheardes Calendar to him. Other literary contacts included membership in the (possibly fictitious) 'Areopagus', a humanist endeavor to classicize English verse, as well as the literary patronage of his sister, who after his death completed the verse translation of the Psalms that he had begun.
By the middle of 1581, Sidney had returned to court; that same year Penelope Devereux was married to Lord Rich, apparently against her will. Sidney was knighted in 1583. An early arrangement to marry Anne Cecil, daughter of Sir William Cecil and eventual wife of de Vere, had fallen through in 1571; in 1583 he married Frances Walsingham, teenage daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. The next year he met Giordano Bruno who subsequently dedicated two books to Sidney.
Both through his family heritage and his personal experience (he was in Walsingham's house in Paris during the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre), Sidney was a keenly militant Protestant. In the 1570s, he had persuaded John Casimir to consider proposals for a unified Protestant effort against the Catholic Church and Spain; in the early 1580s, he argued unsuccessfully for an assault on Spain itself. In 1585, his enthusiasm for Protestant struggle was allowed full expression when he was made governor of Flushing in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, he consistently urged boldness on his superior, the Earl of Leicester. He conducted a successful raid on Spanish forces near Axel in July, 1586; later that year, he joined Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen. During the siege he was shot in the thigh and died 22 days later.
Sidney's body was returned to London and interred in Saint Paul's Cathedral on February 16, 1587. Already in life, but especially after his death, he became for many English people the epitome of a courtier and a gentleman: learned and politic, and also generous and brave. Never more than a marginal figure in the politics of his time, he was memorialized as the flower of English manhood in Edmund Spenser's Astrophel, one of the greatest of English Renaissance elegies.
The most famous story about Sir Philip (intended as an illustration of his noble character) is that, while dying, he gave his water-bottle to another wounded soldier, saying, "Thy need is greater than mine." Sidney's life remains a part of his legacy as much as his writings. In 1819, Thomas Campbell concludes that Sidney's life was "poetry in action"; and in 1858 William Stigant wrote that "Sidney's real poem was his life, and his teaching was his example" (quoted in Garrett, Sidney 55). No better elegy for him could be given.
Sidney wrote the Defence before 1583. It is generally believed that he was at least partly motivated by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright who dedicated his attack on the English stage, The School of Abuse, to Sidney in 1579. Sidney, who was no great admirer of the stage, primarily addresses more general objections to poetry and fiction in general, such as those of Plato and other philosophers, whose views he sees reflected in the opinions of Gosson and men like him. In his essay, Sidney integrates a number of classical and Italian precepts on fiction. The essence of his defense is that poetry, by combining the liveliness of history with the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy in rousing its readers to virtue.
Sir Philip Sidney’s influence can be seen throughout the history of English literary criticism since the publication of the The Defence of Poesie, which is also frequently referred to by its other title, An Apology for Poetry. Sidney’s influence on future writers could be analyzed from the standpoint of his handling of the utilitarian view of rhetoric that dominated Sidney's time and can be traced all the way back to the Sophists. Sidney, following Aristotle, writes that human action is tantamount to human knowledge. Men drawn to music, astronomy, philosophy and so forth all direct themselves to "the highest end of the mistress knowledge, referred to by the Greeks as architectonike (literally, "of or for a master builder")," which stands, according to Sidney, "in the knowledge of a man's self, in the ethic and political consideration, with the end of well doing and not of well knowing only" (Leitch "Sidney" 333). Sidney’s program of literary reform concerns the connection between art and virtue, and the thrust of his argument in the Apology is to prove that it is through the contemplation of art that we can arrive at a virtuous understanding of life.
One of the themes of the Apology is the insufficiency of simply presenting virtue as an idea; the poet is needed so that men will be moved to virtuous action. From Sidney, this view of the virtuousness of poetic imagination can be connected directly with future poets and literary figures, particularly Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth.
The influence of Sidney's Apology also relates to the question of the poet's place in society. Sidney describes poetry as creating a separate reality, removed from the world of everyday nuisances. Sidney, like Shelley and Wordsworth, sees the poet as separate from society. To Sidney the poet is not tied to any obligations other than those of his art. Like Wordsworth and many of the Romantics, Sidney affirms that the ultimate goal of poetry is to connect with nature. Yet Sidney's argument is perhaps more subtle than that of many of his successors, for he argues that contact with nature can be achieved purely through the imagination—by engaging in the creative act of writing a poem, the poet creates an imaginative world, complete with a nature of its own.
Sidney writes that there “is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object.” The poet, then, does not depart from external nature. His works are "imitation" or "fiction," made of the materials of nature, but shaped by the artist's vision. This vision is one that demands the reader's awareness of the art of imitation created through the poet. Much of Sidney's defense consists of his argument that, although poetry deals solely with imitations and imaginings, it is nonetheless essential for understanding the real nature of our world. Sidney’s doctrine presents the poet as an almost supernatural creator-figure, partaking in the divine prerogative. The poet’s role is to mediate between the two worlds—transcendent forms and historical actuality.
An Apology for Poetry is the most important contribution to Renaissance literary theory. Sidney advocates a place for poetry within the framework of an aristocratic state, while showing concern for both literary and national identity. Sidney responds in Apology to an emerging antipathy to poetry that saw works like Stephen Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse (1579) come to prominence. Gosson offers what is in essence a puritan attack on imaginative literature. What is at stake in Sidney’s argument is a defense of poetry’s nobility. The significance of the nobility of poetry, according to Sidney, is its power to move readers to virtuous action. True poets must, as Sidney says, teach and delight—a view that dates back to Horace.
In an era of an antipathy to poetry, and puritanical belief in the corruption of literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function. Among Sidney’s gifts to his contemporaries were his respect for tradition and willingness to experiment. An example of the latter is his approach to Plato. He reconfigures Plato’s argument against poetry—which he regarded as an imitation of an imitation, far removed from reality—by saying poets are “the least liar.” Poets never claim to know the truth, nor “make circles around your imagination,” nor rely on authority. As an expression of a cultural attitude descending from Aristotle, Sidney, when stating that the poet "never affirmeth," makes the claim that all statements in literature are hypothetical or pseudo-statements, an opinion that is remarkably similar to that of contemporary literary theorists.
The first of the famous English sonnet sequences, Astrophil and Stella was probably composed in the early 1580s. The sonnets were well-circulated in manuscript before the first (apparently pirated) edition was printed in 1591; only in 1598 did an authorized edition reach the press. The sequence was a watershed in English Renaissance poetry. In it, Sidney partially nativized the key features of his Italian model, Petrarch: variation of emotion from poem to poem, with the attendant sense of an ongoing, but partly obscure, narrative; the philosophical allusions; and the musings on the act of poetic creation itself. His experiments with rhyme scheme were no less notable; they served to free the English sonnet from the strict rhyming requirements of the Italian form. Although published many decades after Sir Thomas Wyatt first introduced the sonnet to English-speaking audiences, Astrophil and Stella proved to be the key work which would turn the sonnet into perhaps the most durable form in all of English verse. Though the sequence is long, consisting of 110 sonnets in all, here is a sample of some of its finer moments:
The Arcadia, by far Sidney's most ambitious work, was as significant in its own way as his sonnets. The work is romance that combines pastoral elements with a mood derived from the Hellenistic model of Heliodorus. A highly idealized version of the shepherd's life adjoins (not always naturally) with medieval stories of jousts, political treachery, kidnappings and battles. As published in the sixteenth century, the narrative follows the Greek model: stories are nested within each other, and different story-lines are intertwined. The work enjoyed great popularity for more than a century after its publication. William Shakespeare borrowed from it for the Gloucester subplot of King Lear; parts of it were also dramatized by John Day and James Shirley. According to a widely-told story, King Charles I quoted lines from the book as he mounted the scaffold to be executed; Samuel Richardson named the heroine of his first novel after Sidney's Pamela.
Arcadia exists in two significantly different versions. Sidney wrote an early version during a stay at Mary Herbert's house; this version is narrated in a straightforward, sequential manner. Later, Sidney began to revise the work along a more ambitious plan. He completed most of the first three books, but the project was unfinished at the time of his death. After publication of the first three books (1590) sparked interest, the extant version was fleshed out with material from the first version (1593).
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