Sir Philip Sidney

The English poet, courtier, diplomat, and soldier Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) realized more dramatically than any other figure of the English Renaissance the ideal of the perfect courtier and the universal gentleman.

The son of a noble and well-connected family, Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst, his father's estate in Kent. His formal education began with his entrance into the Shrewsbury School in 1564. In 1568 he moved on to Christ Church, Oxford. Sidney's correspondence and school records indicate that as a youth he already showed clear signs of brilliance but that he was of sober temperament and uncertain health. Leaving Oxford without a degree, as was not uncommon for noblemen, Sidney completed his education with a 3-year tour of the Continent (1572-1575), visiting France, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Italy.

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Life at Court

On his return to England, Sidney entered quickly into the life of the aristocracy, dividing his time between the London house of his uncle, the powerful Earl of Leicester, and the country home of his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. Late in 1576 he paid a visit to his father, then Lord Deputy of Ireland, and observed political and social conditions in Ireland firsthand. Upon returning to England he addressed to the Queen a Discourse on Irish Affairs, defending his father's administration from the many criticisms leveled against it. In 1577 Sidney was sent on a diplomatic mission to Germany, during which he enthusiastically but unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the quarreling Protestant factions and to organize a unified resistance against the Catholic nations.

Sidney's interests and relationships, however, were not restricted to the worlds of the court and diplomacy. He enjoyed frequent contacts with a variety of literary men, notably Thomas Drant, Fulke Greville, Edward Dyer, and Edmund Spenser. In his attempt to share in their efforts to create a new English poetry, Sidney wrote a number of experimental poems in nonrhyming quantitative meters. Other works probably written during this period include his Lady of May, an elaborate entertainment performed in honor of Queen Elizabeth I (1578), a large part of his sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella, and the first draft of his prose romance, the Arcadia. His Apology for Poetry was probably composed shortly after the publication of Stephen Gosson's School of Abuse (1579), an attack on the theater that had been dedicated to Sidney without his knowledge or approval.

Marriage and Death

Meanwhile, Sidney's situation at court was not entirely satisfactory. He had for some years been regarded as a young man of promise and importance; but he was still without any steady and remunerative position. Other disappointments may have added to his discouragement: he had for some time known and admired Penelope Devereux, the daughter of the Earl of Essex, who clearly inspired the "Stella" of his sonnet sequence. But she married Lord Rich in 1581. Two years later Sidney married the daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. He was knighted the same year.

Sidney had been a leader of the strong Puritan faction promoting English involvement in the wars of the Protestant Dutch against their Spanish rulers. In 1585, after Elizabeth I finally acceded to this faction's demands and sent an army to the Netherlands, Sidney was named governor of Flushing, one of the towns that the Dutch had ceded to the Queen in return for her support. For several months he fought and commanded troops at the side of his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, in Flanders. At the battle of Zutphen on Sept. 22, 1586, he was fatally wounded. A biography written by his friend Greville tells how Sidney was vulnerable because he had generously lent a part of his protective armor to a fellow knight.

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Major Works

During his lifetime Sidney's works circulated only in manuscript. His Arcadia was the first to be printed, in 1590. Combining elements drawn from the pastoral tradition, the heroic epic, and the romances of chivalry, this long mixture of prose and verse summed up the heroic ideals that inspired Sidney's life. The Arcadia is noted for its complex plot, for its earnest digressions on such topics as justice, atheism, virtue, honor, and friendship, and for its involved and elaborate style. The published version of 1590 was a revision, much amplified and elaborated by comparison with the first draft.

In Astrophel and Stella, first printed in 1591, Sidney expressed varying moods and intensities of passionate love, in imitation of Italian and French sonneteers of the Petrarchan tradition. Sidney's simple yet delicate verse is markedly superior to that of his contemporaries. His Apology for Poetry (first published in 1595) was the first major critical essay in Renaissance England. Drawing on such foreign critics as Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro, Sidney condensed the classical defense of "poetry" (by which he meant all forms of creative writing), and he insisted on the ethical value of art, which aims to lure men to "see the form of goodness, which seen they cannot but love ere themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries." This critical essay, perhaps more than any other work, has assured Sidney's position in the history of literature. All three of his major works, however, hold an important place in one of the most brilliant eras of English literary creativity.

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Further Reading on Sir Philip Sidney

Sidney's Complete Works were edited by Albert Feuillerat (4 vols., 1912-1926). An excellent edition of the Poems was prepared by William A. Ringler, Jr. (1962). Full biographies of Sidney include Malcolm W. Wallace, The Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1915); Mona Wilson, Sir Philip Sidney (1931); and Kenneth Muir, Sir Philip Sidney (1960). Other helpful studies include Kenneth Orne Myrick, Sir Philip Sidney as a Literary Craftsman (1935; 2d ed. 1965); John Buxton, Sir Philip Sidney and the English Renaissance (1954; 2d ed. 1964); and Frederick Samuel Boas, Sidney: His Life and Writings (1955). Recent critical assessments are available in Robert L. Montgomery, Jr., Symmetry and Sense (1961); David Kalstone, Sidney's Poetry: Contexts and Interpretations (1965); and Neil L. Rudenstine, Sidney's Poetic Development (1967). For general literary background see Douglas Bush, The Renaissance and English Humanism (1939); S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1951); Hallett Darius Smith, Elizabethan Poetry (1952); and C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1954).

Additional Biography Sources

Duncan-Jones, Katherine, Sir Philip Sidney, courtier poet, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Greville, Fulke, Baron Brooke, The life of the renowned Sr Philip Sidney (1652), Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1984.

Greville, Fulke, Baron Brooke, Sir Fulke Greville's Life of Sir Philip Sidney, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.

Hamilton, A. C. (Albert Charles), Sir Philip Sidney: a study of his life and works, Cambridge Eng.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Lloyd, Julius, The life of Sir Philip Sidney, Folcroft, Pa. Folcroft Library Editions, 1974.

Sidney in retrospect: selections from English literary renaissance, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Wilson, Mona, Sir Philip Sidney, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.