Born: November 30, 1554, Kent, England
Died: October 17, 1586 (aged 31), Zutphen, Netherlands
Notable Works: Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia
Sir Philip Sidney (30 November 1554 – 17 October 1586) was an English poet, courtier, scholar and soldier. While he did not write much poetry and certainly didn’t think of himself as a writer, he has remained remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Elizabethan age.
Sidney’s most famous works include Astrophel and Stella, The Defence of Poesy and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. He wrote for only seven or eight years of his life, spending the rest of his time working in politics and the military.
He died in the Battle of Zutphen, fighting for the Protestant cause against the Spanish in 1586, when he was only 31 years old.
Sir Philip Sidney – Early Life and Family
Philip Sidney was born on November 30, 1554, in Kent, England, the first child of Sir Henry Sidney and his wife, Mary, née Dudley. His mother was the eldest daughter of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and the sister of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. Present at Sidney’s birth were his royal Spanish godfather and his maternal grandmother.
Sidney’s younger brother Robert was a statesman and patron of the arts, and was created Earl of Leicester in 1618. His younger sister, Mary, married Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke and was a writer, translator and literary patron. Sidney dedicated his longest work, the Arcadia, to her and, after her brother’s death, Mary reworked the Arcadia, which became known as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.
In 1559, when Sidney was only four, Queen Elizabeth appointed Sir Henry lord president of the Marches of Wales, a post that required him to spend months at a time away from home and resulted in much of Sidney’s childhood being fatherless.
In 1564, Sir Henry enrolled Sidney in Shrewsbury School when he was nine years old. The school was far from Penshurst, but the town was under Sir Henry’s jurisdiction. The curriculum was almost entirely in Latin and Sidney may have developed his taste and love for drama by acting in plays at Shrewsbury. He was also very studious and excelled in areas such as grammar, rhetoric and mathematics.
In 1568, Sidney enrolled as a student at Christ Church, Oxford where he studied for three years. During these years, a marriage was proposed between Philip and Anne Cecil, daughter of Sir William Cecil. However, when William realised that the Sidneys were relatively poor, the marriage was called off.
Sidney left Oxford without a degree and, after recovering from the plague in the spring of 1572, he may have spent a term at Cambridge.
Early Career and Travel
In 1572, at the age of 18, Sidney was elected to Parliament as a Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury. He travelled to Paris as a member of the delegation accompanying Lord High Admiral Edward de Fiennes, Ninth Earl of Lincoln, with a licence from Queen Elizabeth for a period of two years. Here he was to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth I and the Duc D’Alençon.
He remained in Paris for the summer and made friends with many important figures, including Sir Francis Walsingham, the rhetorician Peter Ramus and the printer Andrew Wechel.
He spent the next several years in mainland Europe, moving through Germany, Italy, Poland, the Kingdom of Hungary and Austria. He fell seriously ill in Vienna but recovered over the winter of 1574–1575.
Sidney finally returned home to England in 1575, where his family were mourning the death of youngest sister, Ambrosia, at the age of ten in February 1574. Sidney was keen to enter the service of his country, he spent the next eighteen months in England, awaiting assignment.
Marriages and Children
In 1575, when Sidney returned to England, he met Penelope Devereux (who would later marry Robert Rich, 1st Earl of Warwick). Her father, Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, was said to have planned to marry his daughter to Sidney, but he died in 1576 and this did not occur. Despite this, and despite the fact that Penelope was much younger, she inspired Sidney’s famous sonnet sequence of the 1580s, Astrophel and Stella.
In 1583, Sidney married Frances, the 16-year-old daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth, born 1585. Elizabeth later married Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland, in March 1599 and died in 1612.
Further Political Career
In 1577, Sidney, accompanied by two experienced statesmen, Sir Henry Lee and Sir Jerome Bowes, travelled to Prague on the official mission of extending the Queen’s condolences to the family of Maximilian II of Austria, following his death. In Prague, he also visited Edmund Campion who was an exiled Jesuit priest.
Following 1577, Sidney’s political career was frustrated by Elizabeth’s interest in balancing the power of Spain against that of France, which was a balance she feared would be upset by the creation of a Protestant League. Therefore, Sidney turned his attention briefly to exploration, investing in three New World voyages by Martin Frobisher.
In 1579, Sidney quarrelled with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, probably because of Sidney’s opposition to the French marriage of Elizabeth to the much younger Alençon, which de Vere championed. In the aftermath of this episode, Sidney challenged de Vere to a duel, which Elizabeth forbade.
Sidney was absent from the court the next year and probably spent much of the time at Wilton, his sister’s home, writing. He had begun writing in 1578.
He returned to the court a year later and in 1584 was MP for Kent. He was knighted in 1583 and, in the same year, he made a visit to Oxford University with Giordano Bruno, the polymath known for his cosmological theories who subsequently dedicated two books to Sidney.
Sidney began writing in 1578. His writing career was brief and intense, lasting no more than seven or eight years, and he did not think of himself as a writer. What’s more, none of his work appeared until after his death. Some of his greatest works include a sequence of 108 love sonnets, which was written to his mistress, Lady Penelope Rich, though dedicated to his wife.
During his time away from the court in 1579, he wrote Astrophel and Stella (1591) and the first draft of The Arcadia and The Defence of Poesy. The years 1579 through 1584 represent the peak of Sidney’s literary activity.
Style and Influence
Sidney’s style is often often said to be of a poet writing prose; melodious, picturesque, rather artificial and ornamental. Many of his characters are vague and the works contain a number of fine lyrics. In form, he usually adopts the Petrarchan octave (ABBAABBA), with variations in the sestet that include the English final couplet.
Sidney was heavily influenced by his travels and particularly by his time in Italy. He held Italian literature in high esteem, and his work was significantly shaped by Italian influences. He also shows awareness of Petrarchism in his work, and much of his work is also influenced by Protestantism.
Sidney was a keenly militant Protestant. He had been in Walsingham’s house in Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and, in the 1570s, he persuaded John Casimir to consider proposals for a united Protestant effort against the Catholic Church and Spain.
Sidney was promoted General of Horse in 1583 and he was appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands in 1585. He carried out a successful raid on Spanish forces near Axel in July 1586.
Sidney joined Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen, fighting for the Protestant cause against the Spanish in 1586. During the battle, he was shot in the thigh and died of gangrene 26 days later on October 17, at the age of 31. He was not fully armoured when shot, because he had noticed that one of his men was not fully armoured and thought that it would be wrong to be better armoured than his men.
Sidney’s body was returned to England and he was buried in Old St Paul’s Cathedral on 16 February 1587. Unfortunately, the grave and monument were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The Lady of May
The Lady of May is one of Sidney’s lesser known works and is a masque that was written and performed for Queen Elizabeth I in 1578 or 1579. The play draws upon the literary tradition of pastoral.
Astrophel and Stella
Astrophel and Stella, also known as Astrophil and Stella, is thought to have been composed in the early 1580s and was the first of the famous English sonnet sequences. They were not published properly until 1598 and were well-circulated in manuscript before this.
Astrophel and Stella contains 108 sonnets and 11 songs and, in them, Sidney partly nativised the key features of his Italian model Petrarch, including variation of emotion from poem to poem, the philosophical trappings of the poet in relation to love and desire, and musings on the art of poetic creation.
The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia
Also known simply as Arcadia, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia is a long prose pastoral romance, which Sidney most likely composed when he was absent from the court for a year in 1579. It is his most ambitious and famous work. Sidney finished one version of his text, and then later significantly expanded and revised his work. Scholars today often refer to these two major versions as the Old Arcadia and the New Arcadia.
The work contains a highly idealised version of the shepherd’s life adjoined with stories of jousts, political treachery, kidnappings, battles, and rapes. Sidney died before finishing the final revision of Arcadia. It went on to influence many famous writers, including William Shakespeare, John Day and James Shirley, and Samuel Richardson.
An Apology for Poetry
An Apology for Poetry, also known as A Defence of Poesie and The Defence of Poetry, is a work of literary criticism that is generally believed to be 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 wrote An Apology for Poetry in approximately 1580 and was first published in 1595, after his death.
The essence of his defence 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. While it reflects Sidney’s Protestantism, it is also clearly influenced by his travel and worldly intelligence.
The Sidney Psalms
The Sidney Psalms are a paraphrase of the Psalms into English verse. They were written by both Sidney and his sister Mary, and Mary completed them after his death and later presented a copy to Queen Elizabeth I in 1599.
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